Support builds for those coping with loss of loved ones
YOUNGSTOWN — Eighteen volunteers are now trained to provide support for individuals experiencing the loss of a loved one or friend to drug overdose or suicide.
The volunteers are members of two teams the Mahoning County Mental Health and Recovery Board has created to provide the assistance. The teams are called the LOSS and DOSS teams. That means Local Outreach to Suicide Survivors and Drug Overdose Survivor Support.
Duane Piccirilli, executive director of the MCMHRB, said his agency is the second in the state to create these two types of teams.
“When we looked at the loss in Mahoning County, the numbers are there to support both types,” Piccirilli said.
The county had 161 accidental drug overdose deaths last year, a record for the county. The county had 41 suicides in 2021 and 13 suicides so far in this year. All of the suicide victims this year have been male.
Lee DeVita, MCMHRB program coordinator, said the LOSS and DOSS teams will bring immediate support to those dealing with grief.
“Our trained volunteers are what drives the success of this organization. Their passion and willingness gives others the strength and hope to keep moving forward through the darkest times,” he said.
In addition to helping others, participating on a team also can be an outlet for the team member’s own grief.
“It’s important that our volunteers are dedicated to what they do. For many of them, providing the level of support that they do is just as important to them as it is for those receiving it,” said Brenda Heidinger, associate mental health and recovery board director.
The assistance that the volunteers provide to those left behind at the scene of a loss can help prevent survivors from attempting suicide themselves or seeking unhealthy coping strategies. The LOSS and DOSS teams also offer connections to resources and practical support that encourages help-seeking skills.
“Having someone there, who has experienced this first-hand or is trained in dealing with this acting as a responder, can mean a world of difference. The volunteers help bring hope to those experiencing the ultimate loss, and continue to support them and think about them for as long as necessary,” Piccirilli said.
Denise Meine-Graham, a trainer with the Ohio Suicide Prevention Foundation who started the Franklin County LOSS team, trained the volunteers recently at the MCMHRB offices in downtown Youngstown.
She works on a variety of supports to family members, friends and peers of a person who has committed suicide across Ohio.
“A lot of those people have personally been impacted by one or both of those losses. What we talked about is what does it look like to get ready to go on the scene,” she said.
The volunteers are called up on to go to a scene after a coroner’s office or law enforcement agency notifies of such a death.
“You are there right away to support the family and friends who are left behind. There’s a lot of followup and care afterward, but being there in those initial hours, it’s difficult. It’s not for everyone, but there’s something pretty magical about peers being able to be present and say, ‘I’m a suicide loss survivor. I’m here to support you. I am so sorry for your loss.”
She said it can leave a lasting impression on the survivor who gets that message.
“Even if it’s not in that moment, in the future, that person will remember, ‘Wow, there was somebody who has walked that journey and came out the other side and are here tending to me. I remember that person.’,” she said.
“They are the installation of hope. They may not feel very hopeful that day, but the seeds are planted that day,” she said.
She trained people who will work on both teams, LOSS and DOSS.
“There is definitely a need,” said Meine-Graham. She experienced a suicide loss herself.
Lee DeVita, program coordinator at the mental health and recovery board, said getting a response from 18 volunteers is a big outpouring of interest and demonstrates the need.
“This is a great team,” said Meine-Graham. “They are so teachable. They want to learn from each other, and that is so important to having a healthy team of volunteers acting in this capacity.”
Maureen Waybright of Salem, a suicide survivor who works for the Columbiana County Mental Health and Recovery Services Board, spoke to the 18 volunteers.
She shared a poem she wrote in 1998 before attempting suicide. “I shared how that affected my life,” she said.
“Two years ago, my children’s half brother took his life, so I’ve seen it from both sides — from having a family member who was involved in suicide and being a person who has been there,” she said. After her adult children lost their half brother, she she was able to support them.
“It was very eye-opening, having been on the first side of it and being suicidal myself and not ever imaging the impact that would have on my family. At the time, my mental illness was out of control and I wasn’t thinking clearly and had been boxed up and bottled up in darkness for 10 years before that happened,” she said.
“People needed to understand that you can talk to someone about being suicidal and ask someone if they have any plan to hurt themselves or someone else, and it’s not going to put that thought into their head. If it’s not already there, it’s not going to put the thought into their head,” she said.
She felt that message was important for the volunteers to help them feel safer in their communications with people who had experienced a loss. Waybright is also a mental health first-aid instructor.
“If someone would have asked me (about being suicidal) in 1998, I might have said yes because I just wanted the pain to go away from the years of trauma and abuse,” she said.
“As long as it makes a difference in one person’s life, it’s worth sharing,” Waybright said of the work she does.
She told the volunteers there are different tasks within support teams.
“There are other things that are needed for a LOSS team, like the folks who put the mailings together, pack the bags, make sure of the supplies are there for the people who are out on the scene,” she said.
Piccirilli said Waybright’s messages were important for the volunteers to hear.
“They can do cards and letters and emails; that’s a tremendous help,” Piccirilli said, adding that additional volunteers are welcome. Anyone interested in being involved is asked to call 330-746-2959 Ext. 7975.
The phone numbers for someone needing assistance with suicide is 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and 330-747-2696 for someone needing assistance in Mahoning and Trumbull counties through the local Help Network or 211.