Raising suicide awareness

A Mirror front-page article of May 5 dealt with the topic of suicide and the pain John and Mary Jo McConnell of Altoona have endured since their 30-year-old son Johnny took his life in 2004.

They have been courageous in telling their story in the hope that it might encourage others to seek help and avoid carrying out the “solution” to which their son felt compelled to resort.

Their son, a handsome man with a lot to live for, and with loving help and support available from his parents, became the victim of a scenario that too often is the root of suicides – lateness in identifying the cause of certain feelings or actions but, once identified, the individual’s failure to follow the prescribed path to successfully deal with the problem.

For Johnny, it was being bipolar and not being diagnosed with the condition until he was an adult, then subsequently choosing at times not to take his prescribed medications.

His parents say he was subject to mood swings that could happen in a day or hour. According to his father, when he was up, he would talk incessantly and write angry songs and screenplays; when he was down, it was “depression and paranoia.”

Still, he gave no hints that he was contemplating suicide. As recently as six months before taking his life, in response to his father asking “pointedly” about whether he was considering that action, Johnny denied it, referring to all that was good in his life. That included his marriage and two children.

The night before his death, he had been upbeat during dinner with his mother, and earlier that day had seen his doctor. He got his prescription filled the day he died.

May is Mental Health Month, and John McConnell agreeing to speak at a public education event earlier this month was aimed at helping other families avoid the tragedy that they’ve had to endure and live with for the past decade. As the May 5 article noted, John emphasizes that remembering is critical for the well-being of survivors and prevention of other suicides. He also provides danger-sign reminders to others that he and his wife were late in recognizing.

As others who have had similar experiences can attest, there is no basis for blaming the McConnells for what ultimately transpired, despite their understandable feelings that they might at some point been able to do more.

Like so many others before them and since, they didn’t understand the breadth of that which they were dealing. Their message is that people must become more attuned to accepting the possibility that a deeper problem might exist, and act accordingly.

The May 5 article quoted a fact sheet of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention that in 2010 there were 38,364 reported deaths by suicide, and that major depression was involved in 60 percent of those cases.

One important message at the foundation of Mental Health Month has been that depression and other mental health problems are not something about which to be ashamed. They can happen in any family.

Beyond that, people must watch for danger signs.

The McConnells are providing an important service to others by their willingness to tell their sad, tragic story.