Amid rising suicide attempts in Centre County, ‘we need to be taking action,’ community members say

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Mental Health on Centre

In Centre County, there has been a dramatic increase in “302” mental health warrants. In March 2019, 29-year-old State College resident Osaze Osagie was shot and killed while police officers attempted to serve one of those warrants, sparking controversy across the community. “Mental health on Centre,” an ongoing series from the Centre Daily Times, explores how the mental health system is helping or hurting community members.

Shawn Henfling sat at home alone after days of working 10-plus hour retail shifts and decided to kill himself.

It was over the 2013 Christmas holiday and his wife and kids were visiting family. He had stayed behind take care of his dogs and to work because the money was good and he felt he didn’t really have a choice.

In retail, they have a saying during the holiday season: “Be there or be dead.”

“I was really going to do the ‘be dead’ part,” he said.

Sitting on the couch that night, he reached for his handgun, stuck it in his mouth and prepared to pull the trigger.

But then his phone pinged. A Facebook message from a high school acquaintance named Amy.

“And that’s what saved my life, was just a random text from someone who I hadn’t seen in ... 15 years,” he said.

‘People seem to be more desperate’

Henfling, a 41-year-old Bellefonte resident, is part of a growing demographic in Pennsylvania — those who have either contemplated or attempted suicide.

Tracy Small, the Centre County Crisis Intervention Training coordinator, has been tracking those numbers locally based on reports police fill out for any calls related to mental health.

“It seems to be on the rise,” she said.

Since 2011 when she began tracking mental health-related calls, officers have been called out to 1,209 instances of suicide ideation or attempts. Those numbers are through June 30 of this year, and “there have been many more this quarter as well,” Small said.

“The general public is not really aware of the volume and the magnitude and number of calls that police and first responders are going to that involve suicide,” she said.

For four years, the number of suicide-related calls was relatively stable, hovering between 66 and 78. Then in 2015, there was a tremendous spike to 123 calls, according to Smalls’ data. Almost every year after that, the numbers rose. In 2016, 186 calls. In 2017, 266 calls. In 2018, 238 calls. Through June 30, there have been 109 calls, but Small said the county is well on its way to meeting or exceeding 2018’s call numbers.

“One of the things that we’ve noticed in the past year or two is that people seem to be more desperate, so in other words they’re trying multiple things” to take their own lives, said Small.

‘Too proud’ to ask for help

Between 2013 and 2016 in Centre County, suicide took the lives of 57 people, according to the most recent statistics from the coroner’s office.

Nationally, in 2017, suicide was the tenth leading cause of death in the United States, claiming over 47,000 lives. Among those aged 10-34, it was the second leading cause of death, and among those aged 35-54 it was the fourth leading cause of death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention WISQARS Leading Causes of Death Report.

In 2017, there were also 1.4 million suicide attempts nationwide.

Men are more likely to complete suicide than women, posting a suicide rate nationally in 2017 of 22.4 per 100,000 people compared to the 6.1 suicide rate among females, according to CDC data.

Growing up in rural Bradford County, Henfling said he struggled to admit he needed help with depression during his adolescence. Traditional ideas of masculinity and “bootstrap culture” made him shy away from asking for help.

“I was too proud,” he said. “I used to say ... ‘Taking pills is for other people. I can handle myself. I can fix this.’ And it was that very typical conservative male, machismo attitude that nearly killed me.”

Henfling attended Penn State, and worked in retail in Centre County for several years after graduation. He moved around the mid-Atlantic, working many different jobs in retail.

Though he battled depression for most of his life, it hit him hard in his mid-30s when “life wasn’t what I thought it was gonna be and I didn’t know how to reconcile what it is versus what I thought.”

That put Henfling square in the most common demographic for suicide — middle aged white males, according to the CDC.

“(In Bradford County), there’s still that stigma and shame attached to coming out about (suicide ideation),” he said. “... But it is definitely a different environment and different culture (in Centre County). Much easier for me to be open about it here than it was there.”

Taking action on suicide prevention

And that’s where Marisa Vicere comes in.

Vicere is the president and founder of the Jana Marie Foundation, a State College nonprofit that uses dialogue and creative expression to promote mental wellness among young people and their communities in Centre County.

“It has to go beyond just having a conversation (about suicide prevention). We need to be taking action,” she said.

The Jana Marie Foundation offers classes that train community members in identifying and responding to individuals at-risk for suicide, including Question, Persuade and Refer, Youth Mental Health First Aid and Mental Health First Aid. It also works with many other Centre County agencies to provide mental health and wellness services.

Vicere founded the nonprofit in memory of her sister Jana Marie, who suffered from depression and defiance disorder and took her own life at the age of 30. In addition to training people to spot suicide risk signs, Jana Marie Foundation looks at increasing suicide protective factors like self-confidence, social connections, a strong support network and resource knowledge through programs and groups open to youths and community members.

“Being proactive is really important,” said Vicere. “If we can engage individuals prior to that point of crisis, then hopefully we can help build up those tools and techniques prior to getting to that point.”

Some of the biggest rewards for their work are getting letters from past program participants who say their confidence has blossomed, or that a talk saved a family member’s life, she said.

The foundation also resurrected a survivors of suicide loss support group. “We wanted to be able to provide individuals with that place where they can connect and have a safe place to explore their grief from losing someone they love to suicide,” Vicere said.

Henfling works with Vicere on the Centre County Suicide Prevention Task Force. When he moved back to Centre County in 2015, he decided to get more involved in suicide prevention and mental health initiatives. A year later his marriage dissolved, he quit his job and emptied his retirement accounts to figure out “not only what I wanted to do but who I was.”

In 2017, he finally sought therapy and found a psychiatrist he’s been seeing for the past two-and-a-half years.

“Because what depression really did to me was it took away Shawn,” he said. “I just felt hollow. And even on a good day, I could laugh and have fun with people, but at the end of the day there was just still someone not there.”

Through his work with the task force, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the Zero Suicide Task Force Committee, Henfling has found that social connections — real ones — are so important in suicide prevention, especially among youths.

“We need other people. And I think that’s part of what’s driving our increase in suicide — we need other people and we don’t reach out to each other honestly,” he said. “We need to be more authentic and genuine with each other.”

Both Vicere and Henfling also pointed to a shortage of psychiatrists and waiting lists for mental health professionals in Centre County and nationally as a place where work needs to be done.

Henfling is now working toward earning his second master’s degree in social work at Penn State, working as a patient intake coordinator at The Meadows and interning at Mount Nittany Medical Center. After spending so much of his life struggling, he wants to help others by becoming a therapist and later getting more involved with advocacy and policy work around mental health.

“Having depression is awful,” he said. “But it really brought me to where I am ... I’m finally realizing what I want to be when I grow up ... figuring out who I am.”

Resources for those in crisis

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 or text PA to 741741

  • Centre Helps: 237-5855, 800-494-2500
  • Centre County Mental Health Intervention: 355-6786
  • Crisis Intervention Team Coordinator: 933-7101
  • For more information on Jana Marie Foundation and its programs, visit janamariefoundation.org
Sarah Paez covers Centre County communities, government and town and gown relations for the Centre Daily Times. She studied English and Spanish at Cornell University and grew up outside of Washington, D.C.