In the coming weeks, a pair of events will highlight two of the most dangerous results of mental health issues, overdose and suicide, at a time when many may already be struggling with their own mental health.
“I think right now if there’s any kind of opening for hope in terms of mental health, I think it’s a more out [in the public] topic lately than it has been in some time, and people are getting more comfortable discussing the challenges they’re going through, which is always a plus in terms of destigmatizing seeking help,” said Brad Hieger, a licensed psychologist with Focus Forward Counseling and Consulting, Inc. In Cumming.
Here’s a look at what is coming up and what Hieger says he has heard from his patients.
On Sunday, August 30 from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. and Monday, Aug. 31 from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m., Realty4Recovery will hold a Teacup Memorial Service at 2920 Ronald Reagan Boulevard Ste. 109, a memorial service for those who have lost their lives to addiction where candles in teacups are lit in their memory.
Unlike most years, due to social distancing restrictions, this year’s event will not have speakers or refreshments and guests will only be allowed in 10 at a time.
Organizer Jennifer Hodge said there are already plans to light 1,200 candles and more will be available for other victims that have not been recognized, along with 17, 10-foot wide banners and a 30-plus minute video, both made up of pictures of those who have died from an overdose.
“You can’t help but cry,” Hodge said. “You look at these faces, not only through teacups, not only through banners, but it’s just a video that has you in tears when you see the beautiful boys and beautiful girls that are gone.
At the event on Monday, which is also International Overdose Day, the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office will receive a donation of Narcan, a medicine that combats the effects of opioid overdose.
Hodge has been a force in the local overdose awareness movement, even before it affected her personally, when her son, Robbie, died of an overdose at the age of 23 in 2016 after taking a counterfeit Xanax he bought from someone he knew.
Before Robbie’s death, Hodge, a realtor, formed Realty4Recovery, which has undergone a few name changes over the years, a project that connects Realtors with clients looking to sell their homes in exchange for realtors agreeing to donate a percentage of their commission to addiction recovery efforts.
Robbie was also involved in the inaugural Teacup Memorial, where, after he found that everyone he knew well was already represented by a candle, he lit one for Bobbi Kristina Brown, who he occasionally played with when they were kids.
Hodge said other than the annual ceremony, she also sometimes takes the teacups to other events to raise awareness.
At one recent event celebrating realtors in the Atlanta area, Hodge said candles with pictures of overdose victims, their names and their dates of birth and date were placed at the tables.
Hodge said while many did not initially notice the candles, they left a big impression on one realtor, leading to several others to get involved.
“She says, I can’t believe I sat at this table today because this is my best friend’s son,” Hodge said. “She cried, and you know what, the donations came pouring in.”
Let’s Talk Openly About Suicide
Like overdose awareness, the community will also host an upcoming event aimed at suicide prevention.
As part of World Suicide Prevention Day on Thursday, Sept. 10, starting at 7 p.m., The Forsyth County Drug Awareness Council will host Let’s Talk Openly About Suicide, which will be held on Facebook Live and will feature a panel of speakers.
“We're going to have an informal, back-and-forth discussion among three and four people about issues with suicide and suicide awareness, so we’re trying to keep it conversational and education,” said speaker Mike Dudgeon, a former state Representative representing Forsyth County who lost his son, Daniel, to suicide earlier this year. “It’s not going to be a PowerPoint driven, heavy statistic [meeting], it’s more of personal conversations.”
Along with Dudgeon, other speakers will include John Trautwein with the Will to Live Foundation, state Rep. Kevin Tanner, Forsyth County Sheriff Ron Freeman and Nathan Castleberry, associate pastor of Mountain Lake Church, where the event is being streamed from, and Forsyth County District 4 Commissioner Cindy Jones Mills will serve as the meeting’s moderator.
“The idea is just to have real-world, real people conservations about this that are not intimidating, that are hopefully open and easy to access to let people get the awareness of some of the issues around suicide,” Dudgeon said.
Dudgeon credited Mills with spearheading the meeting to address an issue that many in the community find taboo or have a hard time talking about, saying “the goal of sharing so openly is 100% to help others and to maybe jolt a few people out of complacency.”
Following Daniel’s death, the family planned to set up a GoFundMe drive that quickly raised $50,000, with another $50,000 being raised in the following months to go toward depression research.
Dudgeon said all the hurdles had been cleared of government approval, paperwork and setting up a website for the D3 Research Foundation in Daniel’s memory and the foundation was planning an early-September roll out.
“Some of the university presidents have agreed to help advise me on good research grantees and stuff like that, and I’ve been talking to some of the national groups to just kind of work to get educated on all the stuff, so it’s going,” he said.
Mental Health during COVID
Hieger said the COVID pandemic had brought with it a number of psychological side effects.
At the outset, Hieger said he saw a “notable” uptick in anxiety issues, but as the situation has continued, he has noticed a reduction in “surface-level anxiety,” giving way to low-grade depression due to yet-be-answered questions over finances, the impact on schools and when the pandemic will end and even the monotony of staying at home and social distancing.
“Many people have the sense of ‘same thing, different day,’ and that becomes taxing on people after a while, just not being able to do their normal routines,” he said.
Other forms of stress, Hieger said, can come from the family, such as tough discussions some families might have to have about whether grandparents can meet up with their grandkids due to safety issues and working from home around family members, pets, deliveries and other distractions.
“It doesn’t have the work-life separation that people are accustomed to,” Hieger said. “There’s the exception of people who are used to working from home, but for just about everybody else, it’s a kind of culture shock that they are adapting to.”
When it comes to substance abuse, Hieger said social support is one of the biggest keys to recovery, which can be an issue with social distancing, and some research had found an increase in opiate use during the pandemic.
On the flip side, he said officials with 12-step groups had adapted to online meetings for those needing support.
Hieger said his own office has had to adjust to online meetings and said 99% of meetings are now done through a video call along with some outdoor meetings. Psychological testing, he said, is still being done in-person for accurate results.
When asked what advice he had been giving to patients to help them cope with mental health issues related to COVID, he said self-care was critical, such as playing, exercise, meditation or something to get “positive rejuvenating experiences in their life.”
“Unfortunately, in good times, that tends not to be at the front of people’s minds, they’re worried about getting everything done, ‘and if there’s time left over, I’ll take care of my own emotional needs and own mental health,'” he said. “But when you’re faced with the levels of cultural strain right now, the pandemic itself, the workplace adjustments, it has to be a priority.”