ROYAL OAK — Emily Harris, 15, remembers the last words her brother said to her the night he killed himself more than a year ago.
“Emily, I love you. I’m sorry. Goodbye,” she recalled him saying just before she went to bed.
The next morning, the family found him dead in his room.
In hindsight, while standing in front of a half-filled auditorium Sept. 25 in Royal Oak Middle School, she said she had feelings of guilt for not picking up on signs pointing to suicide.
But that was not her fault, Jeff Edwards, board chairman of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, pointed out during his presentation.
During the Royal Oak Suicide Awareness For Everyone town hall meeting at the middle school, Edwards said signs are hard to discover because no one really talks about what to look for.
“For some reason, 350 million Americans think we can only get sick from here down,” Edwards said, point from below his head to his feet. His 12-year-old son, Chase, killed himself 10 years ago.
The meeting was the first that Royal Oak SAFE held.
The suicide-prevention task force, formed in May after a string of local and public suicides, has the goal of sparking public discourse on a still-taboo subject.
“I think what we’re doing tonight is elevating the dialogue and creating a safe space,” said Peggy Goodwin, a city commissioner and SAFE committee member. “This isn’t easy to talk about.”
In addition to survivors like Harris and Edwards, mental health experts and local law enforcement officials spoke during the emotional evening.
Royal Oak Police Chief Corey O’Donohue used the pulpit to shed light on how many suicides happen locally. Last year, the city had 11 confirmed suicides and 28 attempted suicides — a figure he admitted could be misleading because of the number of unreported attempts. In comparison, Royal Oak had one person killed in a car accident and no homicides.
“The numbers are scary,” he said.
Nationally, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and prevention.
William Miles, a clinical psychiatrist from Beaumont Medical System, said he hopes those numbers change and the conversation on suicide changes.
He pointed to the fact that the stigmatization surrounding HIV and AIDS has dramatically changed in 20 years.
“Twenty years from now, I want to be able to say the same thing about suicide,” Miles said. “I want to be able to say, ‘Remember when we used to lose 30,000 people to suicide every year?’”
More than a year later, Harris is still recovering from losing her brother.
“At that moment, everything changed for me,” she said.
But through the tragedy, she discovered what she wants to do with her life: to help people like her brother.