Suicide is a tough topic to talk about openly, but thanks to the efforts of local groups and one local family, positive change is coming.
In June, Senator Pamela Helming (R-Canandaigua) met with Christopher and Tiffany Folk, along with their daughters Trinity and Calista, at her Albany office to discuss suicide awareness and prevention. The Folks, who lost their son, Tristan, to suicide, shared their personal journey and ongoing efforts to raise awareness about mental health, suicide prevention and more.
“No one likes to talk or think about suicide, as it is a painful loss when someone makes the tragic decision to take his or her own life. However, issues related to mental health and suicide are becoming more and more prevalent in our society, so suicide is something we need to talk and think about,” Helming said at the time. “We need to discuss how to talk to those who are thinking about suicide, how to prevent suicide, and how to improve mental health access.”
That action—and the policy around it—is precisely where the Folks have focused their energy since tragically losing their son in December, 2017.
“One of our most important takeaways from our journey to Albany was the realization that this problem is pervasive and is finally beginning to make its way into the daily conversation,” Christopher Folk explained. “It would be difficult to quantify how many parents, siblings, friends, relatives reached out to to us after Tristan’s death by suicide to discuss their own experiences and to relay to us that in years past there was such a huge stigma, that many families would downplay the manner of death or would try to avoid the topic or would fail to disclose attempts.”
While overwhelming, the Folks said that the progress in terms of open dialogue is refreshing, especially in small, tightly knit communities like those in Seneca County.
Tiffany Folk noted that being in Albany, listening to professionals and facilitators discuss the problems they see and being given a platform to describe their own experience was an important step. “Our daughters who bravely testified in a filled room—as parents it was simultaneously heartbreaking and uplifting. Heartbreaking that their innocence and their view of the world has been forever altered, and yet uplifting to see and hear the manner in which they comported themselves and the courage and tenacity they demonstrated in a difficult and uncomfortable environment,” she added.
The Folks say that mobile response, or being able to bring response to those who are in need, is critical to fighting this issue successfully. They focused on this thanks in part to the contributions of Margaret Morse, Director of Community Services for Seneca County.
“This was a tremendous opportunity to highlight some of the issues that face a rural county like Seneca. So much discussion is on cities and programs and ways to reach people, including leveraging technology and tele-medicine/tele-psychiatry, but those things require a huge infrastructure, which is often missing in rural environments,” Christopher Folk added. “We believe it was eye-opening for these senators to hear our thoughts and our views on how different Upstate New York is and specifically Seneca County. It was also interesting to hear how receptive they were to the concept of a mobile crisis response unit, and the Senate panel opined that these units and critical response is very important in the overall scheme.”
Even if the resources are available, there’s still plenty to overcome in terms of stigma. “The challenge is making it real,” Tiffany added. “Some of this stems from the prior stigma associated with suicide and the pervasive blame-game where the individual that died by suicide and/or their immediate family would bear the brunt of the blame and people would view this as isolated, independent incidents.”
The Folks believe telling the story is important. “The key is in the story, the journey. Tristan was going places; he was one of the most naturally gifted and intelligent people that I have ever met—if people can see who Tristan was, the trials he faced, and better understand some of the factors that led to his demise, then perhaps we can reach someone on the edge, someone that is outperforming others only to find themselves in a difficult situation for which they are largely unprepared.”
The Folks also noted the support of local officials and legislators like Helming, Senator Sue Serino, Senator Rob Ortt, Senator Gustavo Rivera, Senator David Carlucci and Margaret Morse, saying their efforts at the County and State level have dramatically helped build a better place for progress to happen.