When Heather Sefton, of Wesley Chapel, began losing close friends to suicide, she didn’t know how to cope with the trauma.
The untimely demise of one in the Bay Area was preceded by six others in Sefton’s native New Hampshire.
“I really didn’t understand what was going on,” the 19-year-old said. “They all just kind of kept hitting me.”
She too, began having suicidal thoughts as a result of her own family issues and having struggled with her self-identity, she recalled.
Pasco-Hernando State College (PHSC) has been active in providing resources for those like Sefton, seeking help.
One of its programs — Linking in Faith and Education (LIFE) — seeks to help improve mental and behavioral health by encouraging communication with group support.
The college also hosted a recent seminar – LIFE, Spirit, Wellness: Combating Substance Abuse and Mental Health Issues in Youth.
The Feb. 17 event, at PHSC’s Porter Campus at Wiregrass Ranch, focused on the issues of mental health and substance abuse.
Panelist Teresa Daniels, a volunteer for the Tampa Bay branch of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, spoke about her son, Tristen, who took his life over five years ago.
“We had no idea that he was having any thoughts, or that anything other than what we believed to be normal high school stressors, [were] going on,” she said.
Daniels said she thought her son might be having issues coping with the loss of his grandmother, as well as working odd hours and lack of sleep.
But, there were no serious signs of depression, she said, adding that Tristen was the class clown.
He may have been “masking” his true feelings, Daniels said.
In other words, he may have been hiding his personal issues, while in the company of others.
Likewise, Sefton said there were no obvious signs that her friends were suffering.
Panelist Eddie Williams, a PHSC mental health counselor, provided some advice.
“One of the things I would say the youth is missing usually [is] socialization,” he said. “Having a peer-to-peer support group, or another youth there to talk with, could break the mold. Talking is healing.”
Williams is trying to implement these kind of groups across PHSC’s five campuses.
When it is apparent that someone is doing the opposite of their usual routines, or interests, it’s best to consult them to find out if there’s underlying issues, Williams advised.
The college’s LIFE program also encourages a religious component to be used in offering help, as well.
It aims to educate faith leaders on how to rally around and support those within their community who have mental concerns.
It was Sefton’s growing attendance at Wesley Chapel’s Life Church that helped change things for the better, she said.
“I was found by Jesus,” Sefton said. “That’s really what got me through – my relationship with him.”
And, with finding therapy, she has begun to offer it, as well.
“I’m very vulnerable and open about my story now,” Sefton noted. “I feel like that’s led a lot of people to talk to me about how they feel.”
Johnny Crowder was present at the seminar to offer to those in need, another outlet – with Cope Notes.
This texting service sends multiple messages a day, to its users, consisting of inspirational words and questions.
Cope Notes asks questions for recipients to voluntarily respond to, or just to reflect upon.
The intent is to help others consistently focus on the positive, as their mood may change throughout the day.
Crowder founded the service as a result of his own background.
“I’m a suicide and abuse survivor,” he said. “I spent 10 years in treatment for mental illness.”
He said there wasn’t a specific catalyst that led him to suicidal tendencies.
Besides experiencing domestic violence at home, Crowder said he did not find a sense of community in school and felt isolated.
“It was a childhood full of trauma and neglect that eventually snowballed,” he explained.
Crowder said that he began to find solace in singing, painting, writing and playing the guitar.
This, coupled with socializing and gradually building trust, is what helped him through his pain, he added.
Another speaker, Rachel Starostin, provided a presentation on substance abuse, an issue in which she has struggled with.
She had lived an independent life as a nurse, raising three children before she was hit by a drunk driver.
As a result, she was placed on pain medication to cope with her injuries.
However, Starostin became hooked on her prescription medicine and found it difficult to maintain her daily life.
“I functioned for a long time — until I didn’t,” she said, adding that she gradually transitioned to crystal methamphetamine.
She began neglecting her responsibilities as a mother and eventually lost her home, having to move her children from one hotel to another, Starostin recalled.
A brush with the law resulted in her arrest and her children being taken in by their grandmother.
“When I got out, they didn’t want to come home,” Starostin said. “They didn’t want to look me in the eye.”
Elizabeth Statzer, of the Medical Center of Trinity, took part in Starostin’s class, noting “substance use disorders are something that effects all ages, all races, all genders.”
The Medical Center of Trinity offers selective programs to help users overcome their addiction, she said.
Services include in-patient mental health services. There also is an outpatient program at the hospital where an addict can come by for group therapy three days a week.
Family support groups and family-to-family education classes also are provided to assist loved ones.
Starostin went through a 12-step program for recovery.
She currently is a public speaker, educating others on the dangers of substance abuse.
She also plans to help open a faith-based recovery home for women.
For free treatment referrals and information, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration at (800) 662-4357.
To learn more about, or to try Cope Notes for free, text COPE to 33222, or visit CopeNotes.com.
Published February 26, 2020