‘Be a safe person’ if you know someone suicidal

She had a horrific childhood—prostituted out by her mother as young as two or three years old, and describing sexual, physical and emotional abuse at the hands of several people. By the time she was in her early 20s, Saunja Gelvin had tried to kill herself three times: the first at 18, by putting a gun to her head and pulling the trigger, the second by intentionally flipping a van at a hundred miles and hour, and the third time by drug overdose.

She believes it is a miracle she’s alive, and these days Gelvin speaks out about her experiences as a ministry to those who feel as she once did.

Gelvin will be taking part in the upcoming inaugural Suicide Awareness and Prevention 5k walk/run hosted by Torrance County DWI Prevention Program in partnership with Torrance County Emergency Management, Partnership for a Healthy Torrance Community, Torrance County Domestic Violence Program, E-Town Fitness, the Albuquerque Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and The Independent. The event is intended to raise awareness of suicide and mental health issues and available resources, and to lift the stigma associated with them.

Tracey Master runs the county’s DWI Prevention Program and organized the event.

Suicide touches nearly everyone, Master said, referring to it as the “lather, rinse, repeat cycle.” She put it this way: “Somebody dies by suicide, that’s step one. Step two, ‘Oh my God, we need to do something about this!’ Step three, I say, ‘We need to learn. I’ll offer a mental health first aid class.’ You can learn. We’re not going to save the world, but you can be more understanding. Step four. Nobody registers. Step one, somebody dies by suicide. Oh my God, we need to do something. And it goes round and round and round.”

Master said it’s very uncomfortable and painful to talk about suicide, even though so many families are touched by it. Her husband’s paternal grandfather and his sister, both died by suicide.

Warning signs are not always apparent, Master said, describing her husband’s aunt buying new luggage for a trip, and making breakfast for her grown child before hanging herself later that day.

“I hurt when I heard about the 14-year old, out of state, who killed himself, I hurt when I heard about the 9-year old, also out of state, who killed himself,” Master said, describing her feelings of realizing that a person she interacted with regularly—but didn’t know well—committing suicide.

Master said her aim is to raise awareness about suicide and available resources. “Those statistics, those numbers, are people and families who are broken-hearted,” Master said. “Having that much pain that you feel you have to take that step—we need to be aware. We need to talk about it.”

Gelvin said her advice for people feeling suicidal is, “Don’t do it. Hang on for one more day. There is hope on the other side.” While recovering from childhood trauma can be a long and painful path, telling a suicidal person that is not likely to help, she said. “They’re feeling like they can’t get through one more day. Let them know they can take one step at a time, just get through one day, and that you’ll be there for them to take more steps.”

For those who want to help someone feeling suicidal, she said, “I think people need to know it’s okay not to feel okay. Just recognizing their pain and saying, you know what, you’re absolutely justified in feeling as much pain as you do. I think that isn’t enabling them.”

Sometimes people want to help but take a “just get over it” mentality, Gelvin said, but that can make it worse in her experience. “That was the majority of the reason I would get to that point of wanting to take my life,” she said. “They’d say, ‘Snap out of it, you have children.’ In my mind, there was something really wrong, I’m thinking, ‘I shouldn’t be feeling this.’ I hated myself so much, that I couldn’t be the person they said I could be.”

“Just be alert. You might be that one person who pays attention at the right moment,” Master said. “I am aware of nine local families that have been impacted by suicide since the beginning of the year. There’s a stigma about mental illness, but there’s also a stigma on getting help.”

Master, like Gelvin, pointed out that when someone has a physical illness, it’s easy to know how to reach out and try to help: organize a fundraiser, offer a ride to the doctor, offer moral support. With mental illness, the reaction is more likely to be dismissive, she said: “You have everything to live for! But now is that person going to turn to you for help? … We need to start caring about one another.”

“I think what we miss is you can have compassion for the pain that’s causing the suicidal thoughts,” Gelvin said. “It doesn’t mean you’re agreeing with their plan, it’s just compassion. I think that changes it. But that in itself is so hard—who wants to talk about this stuff? You get told horrible things. There is a stigma about talking about things that hurt us.”

In the end, both offered the same core advice: Pay attention when interacting with people. Be kind. Listen without judgement. “Simply say, ‘This isn’t the only way out.’ Spend time with them. Be willing to be present. Even if they’re not talking to you about what’s causing those thoughts, you’re there, you’re available. Visit with them, see them as human, rather than just a case, or rather than just crazy. First and foremost, they’re human beings.”

The event will be held from 7 a.m. to noon Sept. 22 at Estancia Veterans Park and Lake Arthur Park. Registration in the 5k is free.

Opening ceremonies will start with a silent walk at 8 a.m., with registration starting at 7 a.m. The 5k will start around 9 a.m. after yoga stretching at Lake Arthur Park.

Exhibitors have been invited to provide information about mental health services, crisis interventions, and other programs, with the event wrapping up around noon. Event T-shirts will be available onsite. For information, contact Master at 505-705-0332 or tmaster@tcnm.us.