Tara Dennee was in the psych unit at Upstate University Hospital when she had an epiphany.
It doesn’t have to be like this.
Dennee checked herself into the hospital in the spring of 2011 after fighting depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder in the wake of her father’s 2008 suicide. For three years, rather than seek help for her own emotional problems, she let them spiral out of control until she felt like she might take her own life. Not wanting her own daughter to suffer like she did, she spent 11 days in intensive, inpatient treatment.
During that time, Dennee understood that asking for help meant the difference between life and death.
“Over the 11 days, I saw that there was hope for every single one of us that were in there. I saw dramatic improvement each day,” she said. “It was at that point that I decided that people need to know there is help out there. The stigma needs to end and people need to be aware that mental disorder is no different than cancer or heart disease. It can be treated. People shouldn’t be ashamed to get help.”
Over the course of the next year, Dennee, of Elbridge, dedicated herself to raising awareness about suicide and mental illness. She started Stand Against Suicide (SAS), a nonprofit organization aimed at accomplishing that mission through education and participating in events where the group can promote the cause. Though SAS originally funneled all of its proceeds to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, it recently became a 501(c)3 corporation in its own right. The nonprofit now operates on its own, and 100 percent of the profits go back into the organization for outreach and educational programs.
In order to accomplish SAS’s mission, according to SAS Vice President Kelly Blackburn, a Liverpool native, it’s imperative to first erase the shame associated with suicide.
“We have to slowly soften the stigma of the word,” Blackburn said. “People don’t like to talk about it. People still aren’t okay with the actual word.”
That’s why the educational piece SAS hopes to accomplish is so important.
“These people just need people that know what they’re feeling,” Dennee said. “We’re out here. And we can help.”
In addition to helping those who may be struggling with mental illness and considering suicide, SAS also reaches out to those who, like Dennee, have lost a loved one to suicide. The group has a support group on Facebook where people can share their stories and find support from those in similar situations.
“This spring, I just felt like I had hit rock bottom,” said Cate Alexander of Cicero, whose brother died by suicide five years ago. “I remember just lying on my living room floor… I have kids, and you know you’re not going to do anything. But you just can’t stand feeling this way. Then I found this group, and it’s like there was a light at the end of the tunnel. It makes such a difference knowing there are other people who feel the same way you do.”
Ultimately, SAS wants to take the Facebook group and make it a live support group; when funds are available, the organization hopes to purchase or rent a space to hold face-to-face meetings on a regular basis. Other goals for the future include a line of brochures on depression in youths and teens, PTSD, an awareness trailer that can go to events and a certified on-call counselor, as well as funding to help families who’ve suffered the loss of a loved one by suicide.
“When you’re unexpectedly faced with those funeral expenses, it’s an added burden,” Blackburn said. “We want to be able to help with that.”
In order to meet those goals, SAS will hold its first major fundraiser starting at 9 a.m. Saturday, June 2, at Kegs Canal Side in Jordan. The event, which goes all day, will feature a variety of events meant to attract as diverse a crowd as possible.
“We have so many different attractions,” Dennee said. “We really want to raise awareness. We want to hit all different groups – bikers, car people, kids, everyone.”
“Suicide doesn’t discriminate,” Blackburn added.
“Take a Stand, Save a Life 2012” will feature bands of every genre, including Nashville recording artist Keeghan Nolan; a craft show; a car and motorcycle show; free food; door prizes; raffles; and a kids’ area, which includes a bounce house. Otto the Orange will be on site from noon to 1:30 p.m. Raffle baskets include numerous gift cards, tickets to the Syracuse Crunch, Darien Lake and Sea Breeze, a new bicycle, a charcoal grill and a sightseeing cruise on Skaneateles Lake, among others. All prizes were donated.
The fundraiser was made possible through a $10,000 Pepsi Refresh grant, which SAS won earlier this year. However, that money will only go so far, and it can only be used for certain projects.
“Pepsi had specific guidelines as to where the money had to go,” Dennee said. “We had to use that money to promote ourselves and put our name out there. So we used that $10,000 for the billboard. Billboards are expensive. We used it for the website. You can go through it in no time. It took us six months to spend that $10,000.”
Now, SAS is counting on the community to help them spread the word about their goals, and to help them raise money to accomplish them. Take a Stand, Save a Life will be an annual event, and Dennee and Blackburn want the first one to be a success.
“We want to get people together for a common cause,” Dennee said. “It’s been hidden for so many years, and it’s so important.”
“We want people to know that if they need help, we are real faces here in CNY that will do anything to help them as much as we are able to,” she said. “We’re here.”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.