Aiken area groups work together to end the suicide epidemic

September 2, 2018

On a warm Saturday evening in June, candles flickered across the faces of the family and friends of Naomi Kempter outside of the Building Worship Center in Augusta, Georgia.

The group was gathered for a somber memorial; Naomi was just 14 years old when she completed suicide in May.

Dr. Patrick Lillard with Natalie’s Light, an Augusta-based suicide prevention organization, called the rate of suicide an epidemic, saying there is one every 4.5 days in Aiken, Richmond and Columbia counties.

“If 45,000 people per year died of some sort of virus, we’d all be walking around with masks on worried we’d catch it,” he said.

As of Thursday, there have been 27 suicides in Aiken County in 2018, according to Lisa Tindal, executive director of Mental Health America of Aiken County. The youngest of those was 13 years old, she said, and the oldest was 88.

Getting the community involved

The candlelight vigil for Kempter was organized by the CSRA chapter of Bikers Against Bullies, who work to empower kids who have been bullied.

“In our group, we’ve got probably three or four children that have contemplated [suicide,] and it’s because of bullying that’s brought them to the group, and I know there are other circumstances around why children might think they want to take their own life, however what we do is we give them back their sense of empowerment and self-worth,” said the chapter’s president John “Grizzly” Niechniedowicz.

Bikers Against Bullies “adopts” children into the club, gives them their own vests and mentors them after they’re been bullied.

September is National Suicide Prevention Month, and the Coalition for Suicide Prevention in Aiken County is working to prevent anyone from choosing suicide in the future; this month the group is holding its annual suicide prevention summit to help combat the stigma around suicide. Mental Health America also hosts a support group for loved ones of those who have died from suicide.

Tindal, who works for the coalition, said increasing awareness is a good way for the community to get involved in suicide prevention.

“If they’re in their job setting, in their families, in their social groups, not be afraid to notice the needs of others; and you know to recognize that a lot, a whole lot, a big piece, for suicide prevention is being committed to that relationship to someone who might be suicidal, because therapy is wonderful, counselling is wonderful, even faith complements someone’s life who is thinking about suicide, but it’s a journey, it’s a process to get to and it’s basically deciding ‘I’m going to live now, I’ve decided to live,’” she said.

‘Are you thinking about suicide?’

Tindal said if someone worries somebody they know is considering suicide, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask them directly if they are. She said it shows they may have noticed something the person didn’t think was visible, and that they care enough to ask.

Lillard said suicide prevention needs to be a public health problem, where the community comes together to look at each other in a different way in order to reach out and connect with each other.

“There’s no magical words,” he said, “it’s a matter of being present, being there for them, not pushing them or critiquing what they’re thinking or they’re feeling.”

The coalition has a website, preventingsuicides.org, where those worried about a loved one, or even considering suicide themselves, can find resources, signs and how to get help.

Lillard said signs someone may be considering suicide include a change in sleeping or eating patterns, withdrawal from activities, mood changes and substance abuse.


Dennis Gillan is a South Carolina-based public speaker will be the guest at this year’s summit; he lost two brothers to suicide 11 years apart.

He said support groups and self-care helped him with the grief process. He said after his older brother died, he didn’t take care of himself, didn’t talk about it and was drinking a lot, but after his second brother died, he saw a therapist and was sober.

“If you have a suicide in the family, the risk goes up, and all of a sudden it became imperative… I thought I was bulletproof, but it became imperative that I take care of myself, and often we don’t do that, but it’s like if you’re on an airplane, if the oxygen masks come down, you’ve got to put yours on first and then help others. The same with mental health, you’ve got to be well before you go out and save the world,” Gillan said.

The Annual Suicide Prevention Summit is Thursday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Aiken County Government Center in the Sandlapper Room. The cost is $20 per person and covers lunch. Sponsors of the summit are Denny Michaelis State Farm Insurance, Psych Consultants, The Mill on Park and Rotary Club of Aiken.

The Aiken County Help Line for crisis and suicide intervention can be reached by dialing 2-1-1.

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