Once a month, a support group meets at the Mental Health America Aiken office on Pendleton St. NW.

Tears are shed. Memories are recalled. Everyone listens attentively. Comparisons are made. Differences and unknowns are acknowledged and respected.

The group consists of mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, brothers, sisters and friends. Each person has the opportunity to talk about their own encounter with suicide loss and to listen to the stories of other survivors of suicide.

It is both the hardest meeting and the most impactful meeting I have ever been a part of. A peer facilitator, trained through the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, leads the group. It is this meeting, this communing of like-minded people that instilled a determination to use my position as executive director of Mental Health America Aiken to do as much as I can to continue our support and to prevent suicide.

This group began meeting back in 2010 with only two people present and has grown to a group of more than 30 people. The Survivors of Suicide Bereavement Support group is just one of several expansions to our Education and Advocacy program we intentionally added to strengthen our mission, promoting positive mental health; acting as a buffer in crisis, helping to increase awareness and to prevent suicide.

We added an on-line confidential depression screening tool to our website. Many people wonder if they should seek help for depression. This tool provides answers and lists referral information. Since depression, untreated, can lead to suicide, we recognized the need to increase awareness of its signs and symptoms.

Approximately 19 million people in the United States struggle with depression. Yet, only 1 in 3 people seek help for depression. This tool is an effective and confidential way to start the process towards help and can be found on our website mha-aiken.org.

We collaborate with USC Aiken each fall on National Depression Screening Day to increase awareness of depression in college students. Each year, several students begin counseling on campus as a result of this screening to help them navigate the transition to college life.

Last year, we formed the Aiken County Coalition to Prevent Suicide in Aiken County. This coalition consists of a diverse group with a mission to eliminate suicide in Aiken County. Aiken County Coroner Tim Carlton has been involved from the beginning. Since 2008, 154 people have died by suicide in Aiken County.

Aiken had its first Out of the Darkness Walk last fall. It was led by a father who experienced the loss of his teenage son by suicide. The event was successful with 400 participants and close to $30,000 raised. Most importantly, the event was representative of our community’s willingness to approach the difficult and stigmatized subject of suicide. This year’s walk is scheduled for November 15.

MHA Aiken County has increased our presence in our schools over the past three years. We provided critical training for teachers and counselors on recognizing the signs of depression and suicide in students. With grant funding awarded by the Community Foundation for the CSRA, we purchased and donated to Aiken County School district, an evidence-based program called, Signs of Suicide. Because our high schools have been impacted with the loss of students by suicide, our district has committed to educating our students and ultimately preventing suicide. Over 1000 students have already participated in this important program. Suicide is the third leading cause of death for those aged 15 to 24.

These initiatives are important, not because they demonstrate our mission or even our effective use of United Way dollars. They are indicators of a more important trend…here in Aiken County, we are talking about suicide. I have been told the greatest value of our monthly support group is being able join a group of people who understand their need to talk. The best part is to be listened to.

The initiatives detailed above are to me, just our attempts to be a better listener. You can too. Join the conversation.

For more information about Mental Health America Aiken County, call 803-641-4164.

Lisa Tindal is the executive director of Mental Health America Aiken County.