Suicides of two mental health advocates in a week serve as a grim reminder

Psychotherapist Stacey Freedenthal had helped many people overcome suicidal thoughts before she attempted to take her own life.

Freedenthal, in her 20s at the time and pursuing her master’s degree in social work, had been a volunteer at a suicide prevention hotline. When callers phoned her in crisis, she used her training and education to help.

Stacey Freedenthal.Salvador Armendariz

But at the same time, the depression she had struggled with herself on-and-off for more than a decade was worsening. The advice she gave to others contemplating ending their lives didn’t seem applicable to her. One night in January 1996, six months after she finished her volunteer position at the hotline, she tried to kill herself.

“Nobody is immune from suicide,” including mental health professionals, said Freedenthal, who is now an associate professor at the University of Denver graduate school of social work and the creator of SpeakingofSuicide.com, a suicide prevention website.

“The message can be good and true and inspirational, but that doesn’t mean the messenger is immune to the same challenges as everybody else.”

This week, two suicides highlighted that grim reality: The suicides of Gregory Eells, the head of counseling and psychological services at the University of Pennsylvania, and Jarrid Wilson, a California megachurch pastor who was an outspoken mental health advocate.

The two worked in different circles and did not appear to have any connection to each other, but their deaths left many asking the same question: How could individuals who did so much for the mental health community not have gotten the help they needed themselves?

“The thing about depression and anxiety, and other mental illnesses or psychiatric conditions, is it typically involves our brains lying to ourselves,” said Julie Cerel, a professor at the University of Kentucky College of Social Work and a past president of the American Association of Suicidology.

“When depression is telling you you’re not worthy, even if we’re trained to combat those false beliefs in others, it’s really hard to be able to stop and do that for yourself — especially if you’ve been doing that for other people all day.”

“When depression is telling you you’re not worthy, even if we’re trained to combat those false beliefs in others, it’s really hard to be able to stop and do that for yourself — especially if you’ve been doing that for other people all day.”

In the United States, suicide is on the rise. Experts say multiple factors lead to someone taking their own life and say suicide can happen to anyone — even the famous and successful, like the celebrities Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain.

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