Local couple hopes conference draws attention to the ‘suicide epidemic’

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published March 23, 2016

 Gail Urso, of Grosse Pointe Park, holds a photograph of her oldest son, Kevin, who took his own life in 2013. She and her husband, John, founded the nonprofit Kevin’s Song to educate people on the causes and prevention of suicide.

Gail Urso, of Grosse Pointe Park, holds a photograph of her oldest son, Kevin, who took his own life in 2013. She and her husband, John, founded the nonprofit Kevin’s Song to educate people on the causes and prevention of suicide.

Photo by John McTaggart

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GROSSE POINTE PARK/PLYMOUTH — Kevin Urso was the eldest of Gail and John Urso’s three sons. John Urso said Kevin was “always a challenge as a child” and “strong-willed,” but also someone who loved animals and children, a caregiver by nature who found his calling working with youths at the Children’s Home of Detroit in Grosse Pointe Woods.

When the Children’s Home closed its doors and Kevin found himself out of work, he moved to Florida, where middle brother Brian was an acting general manager for a restaurant. Although he’d suffered from depression, Kevin was seeking help for it. His parents never thought their first-born child would take his own life.

“He was a very funny person,” Gail Urso recalled of her “very gifted” musical son. “He loved animals. You would never think he was suffering from depression.”

But in March 2013, Kevin Urso took his own life in Florida, leaving his family and friends reeling.

“When Kevin died, we were shocked,” Gail Urso said. “We had no idea that suicide was a possibility.”

Out of this painful and personal tragedy, the Ursos — who live in Grosse Pointe Park — began to learn everything they could about suicide, and what they learned prompted them to found the nonprofit Kevin’s Song, an organization whose aim is to increase awareness and understanding of suicide and bring an end to what the couple says is a nationwide “suicide epidemic.” Kevin’s Song is a place where organizations that address suicide can work together, Gail Urso said, pointing out that she and her husband “didn’t know about any of these organizations before Kevin’s death.”

“It’s a life-changing event because you are filled with sadness and negative energy,” John Urso said. “This effort to establish a 501(c)(3) charitable organization … has allowed us to take that negative energy and turn it into something positive.”

Three years after founding Kevin’s Song, the nonprofit has organized “The Silent Epidemic: A Conference on Suicide,” which will take place April 7-9 at The Inn at St. John’s in Plymouth.

Along with medical professionals, clergy members, social workers and others, the conference brings together a wide range of some of the nation’s leading experts on suicide — including keynote speaker Thomas Joiner — and they’ll be looking at this issue from a variety of perspectives to shed light on this problem and train participants in what to watch out for and what they can do to help people who might be suicidal. The conference will address suicide risks among specific groups as well, including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth, military personnel and veterans. Saturday sessions for suicide survivors are also planned.

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, there are an average of 117 suicides per day. Men are 3.5 times more likely to die from suicide than women, and in 2014, white males accounted for seven of every 10 suicides. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that in 2014, suicide was the 10th-leading cause of death in America among all ages, and there is one death by suicide in this country every 12.3 minutes, with suicide claiming the lives of more than 38,000 Americans annually. The World Health Organization says that more than 800,000 people die from suicide each year, and it’s the third-leading cause of death internationally for those between the ages of 15 and 44.

A new documentary by director and executive producer Keith Famie, of Novi, “Death Is NOT the Answer,” will premiere the evening of April 7 at the conference. Famie worked with Kevin’s Song; Rabbi Daniel Syme, of Temple Beth El; and Dennis Liegghio, founder and president of KnowResolve, on the film, which explores the issues of death and suicide, along with areas such as how music can bring people joy and how people’s mental health can be impacted by diet and activity. 

“I am hoping we can communicate three very important messages: One, that depression can affect anyone,” Famie said by email. “I am hoping the film will help with the stigmas that come from the word ‘depression.’ Two, when a suicide takes place, the loved ones left behind feel so much guilt and pain, asking themselves what could they have done differently, why didn’t they see it coming. I am hoping possibly the film may ease some of that blame people place on themselves by better understanding what possibly was going on with their loved one. Three, if this film can help change the direction of someone’s life to where they can reach out for help instead of choosing suicide, then we will have really created a very important documentary.”

In addition, “Death Is NOT the Answer” is expected to air on Detroit Public Television at a later date.

The stigma associated with suicide and depression is something the Ursos hope to erase.

“There’s a tendency to want not to talk about it,” John Urso said. “You couldn’t be buried out of a Catholic church for death by suicide 25 years ago.”

They want to start a dialogue about these issues, and they want people experiencing depression and suicidal thoughts to feel comfortable discussing them and getting help.

“You’re never going to solve these problems by not talking about them,” Gail Urso said. “It’s OK to have a broken leg, but it’s not OK (in society) to say, ‘I’m depressed.’ Our goal is just to get people to talk about it.”

They hope the conference attracts people who work in professions where they might encounter suicidal or depressed people — including educators, clergy members, medical professionals and those in law enforcement — along with suicide survivors and the family and friends of those who’ve taken their own lives or attempted suicide. As John Urso pointed out, the conference has a three-pronged approach, sharing information and intervention techniques and offering hope.

“If you see something that you determine to be an at-risk statement, then you’ve got to act,” he said. “Hopefully, this conference will (cause people to) err on the side of intervention.”

Gail Urso said that if they can save other lives, “It’s a way to honor Kevin.”

To register or for more information, visit www.KevinsSong.org or call (313) 236-7109.

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