A 'release' of pent-up feelings
Speaking recently under the shade of trees on the northern tip of Goat Island, the Pell Bridge connecting Newport and Jamestown visible behind him, Gonsalves said the idea for the group came to him in the middle of the night.
"I couldn't sleep," he said. "I was lying up on my bed, thinking of some other people's pain and what they're going through."
He also thought of The Journal's 2019 multimedia story about his suicide jump, "
Redemption: The Fall and Rise of Mark Gonsalves," which brought wide attention to suicide and prevention. That story, he said, sparked conversations that otherwise might not have happened.
"Sometimes, just to speak on it, you feel lighter," Gonsalves said. "You feel like you just lost weight after you release, after you tell someone."
And "release," he said, is the essence of his new Facebook group — for members and also for him.
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In a post last month, Gonsalves described factors behind his attempt to end his life, writing, "I do not know what came first, my mental illness or my addictive personality that led me to pick up drinking and cocaine."
What he did know, he wrote, was that as he drove to the top of the Pell Bridge, he was done with "making decisions in life that caused so much pain in my life to those that I loved."
His death, he wrote, would have caused more pain, but he believed then that "eventually they [would] continue on and keep moving with no more pain rather than me staying alive and causing such continuous pain throughout the rest of their lives."
Reducing social stigma
Candor and courage are in abundant evidence on Open Suicide Discussions. Gonsalves asserts that sharing painful stories not only has value to individuals and their families and friends, but also is useful in reducing societal stigma, which can keep people who are suffering from seeking help.
Stories are told of anxiety, alcoholism, brushes with the law, homelessness and post-traumatic stress disorder. Sayings and photos are shared and discussed.
"Suicide victims are not 'weak, 'selfish' or 'cowards,'" is the message on one popular post. "They are fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, cousins, grandchildren who were in pain and are missed and loved every day. Choose your words carefully and please don't judge what you cannot possibly understand. #TimeToChange. Raise awareness, not stigma."
Another post quotes essayist and poet Stephanie Bennett-Henry, whose
Facebook page is followed by nearly a half-million people.
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"Some days are harder than others and there are nights that take me to my knees hard, like a punch to the center of the gut, where my heart begs for the peace of a full stop, flatline," it reads. "And I can't always remember how to breathe, but for the life of me, I am trying and I am still here. That counts for something. I am sure of it."
Not a substitute for professional help
Experts contacted by The Journal said that online support groups can have significant value, but they must be part of an overall approach to addressing suicidal and behavioral-health matters. Professional intervention is also critical, they said, a point that Gonsalves makes, too.
"Peer support can be very important as people try to cope with trauma, depression and so much more," said Denise Panichas, executive director of The Samaritans of Rhode Island. "As we know, the pandemic has highlighted the impact of isolation, and participating in blogs and chat rooms may help those in need stay connected. The participant can judge whether it is useful to them.
"But at The Samaritans, we also say resources such as our listening line or other blogs and chat groups should never substitute or delay professional care. We know from the doctors and nurses who volunteer for us that there are many treatable new or chronic physical problems that can present themselves as depression. As always, but especially now during the COVID-19 pandemic, we encourage everyone to speak with their primary-care doctor about how they are feeling both physically and emotionally."
Michael Armey, a research psychologist at Butler Hospital and associate director of Brown University's Consortium for Research Innovation in Suicide Prevention, said the emergence of groups such as Open Suicide Discussions reflects challenging times.
"What we see in this is this huge demand we have in society right now for mental health care," Armey said. "People are clamoring for help. They don't know where to go, they don't know who to talk to."
Armey sees social-media mental-health and suicide-prevention groups "as a manifestation of group therapy. We think about people recognizing that they're not alone, that there are other people who are experiencing what they're feeling. So making this experience not alien is really valuable for people."
But the psychologist raised a caution.
"We all know what online communities can become, how they can start out being very supportive and as time goes by, they often change, and then it turns into something else, or the community attracts people who don't have the purest attentions," he said.
Armey's advice? "If I had my choice, I'd say, 'Talk this over with your therapist. Decide whether or not this is the right place for you.'"
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Carolyn DiDonato, program manager of emergency services and intake at Warwick-based Thrive Behavioral Health, said groups such as Open Suicide Discussions have "both pros and cons. ... Some of the benefits would include the reach to younger audiences, helping reduce stigma, and the peer-to-peer support.
"The challenge to this form of communication is that individuals may not reach out for professional help or counseling. It should not replace programs that are staffed by trained service providers, like Thrive's Emergency Services team or the Samaritans Hotline."
'It breaks my heart'
Gonsalves said the serious injury of his son, Jhamal, in a scooter crash involving Providence police last fall profoundly affected him. His religious beliefs have helped sustain him, he said, and they are seen in some of his posts to his new group — and reflected in comments from like-minded members.
"Why are you afraid to say that you are depressed?" Gonsalves posted recently. "Believe me, by no means are you the only one that ever wanted to end their life. Yes God loves you. Never think that he doesn't. He is building you to be who you are meant to be. The tough times in life are to make you stronger. To be a better you."
But faith is no prerequisite for group membership, Gonsalves told The Journal, only a desire to seek support on the path toward healing.
"It breaks my heart when I know that someone else is in those black moments of thought that I was in — and I could still be in at any time," Gonsalves said.
He hopes that group members will benefit from "some of the tools I've learned and the resources that I've gained," he said.