Kevin’s Song co-founders John and Gail Urso, of Grosse Pointe Park, flank a photograph and brief biography of their late son, Kevin Francis Urso, who died from suicide. Kevin’s parents have become advocates for suicide prevention and awareness.

Kevin’s Song co-founders John and Gail Urso, of Grosse Pointe Park, flank a photograph and brief biography of their late son, Kevin Francis Urso, who died from suicide. Kevin’s parents have become advocates for suicide prevention and awareness.

Photo by K. Michelle Moran


Suicide prevention conference to bring healing and hope to public health crisis

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published October 30, 2018

GROSSE POINTE PARK/PLYMOUTH — When their son, Kevin Francis Urso, died from suicide at the age of 41 at his home in Florida on March 23, 2013, John and Gail Urso, of Grosse Pointe Park, could have allowed their overwhelming grief to consume them.

Instead, the Ursos are honoring the memory of their smart, witty, caring eldest son by making sure that other families don’t suffer the same tragedy they did. Through the nonprofit Kevin’s Song — so named because of Kevin Urso’s love of music — the Ursos have organized their third annual conference on the causes of suicide and ways to prevent it Nov. 8-10 at The Inn at St. John’s in Plymouth.

Speakers will include American academic psychologist Thomas Joiner, a leading suicide expert; suicide research pioneer Jill Harkavy-Friedman, vice president of research for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention; Detroit Police Chief James Craig; and Will Heininger, a former University of Michigan defensive lineman and now program coordinator for U-M’s Depression Center whose own battle with depression led him to become an advocate for mental health awareness among student-athletes.

The conference, which continues to grow, draws attendees and expert speakers from around the country. A related 30-minute documentary on suicide awareness and prevention, “Singing Kevin’s Song,” will premiere on Detroit Public Television at 5:30 p.m. Nov. 2 and 11:30 a.m. Nov. 7.

This year’s conference is called “Confronting a Public Health Crisis” because suicide rates are increasing, and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention says it’s now the 10th leading cause of death overall in the United States. John Urso said that suicide rates have risen 25 percent nationwide in the last decade. According to the AFSP, nearly 45,000 Americans die by suicide annually. In Michigan, the AFSP found that suicide is the third leading cause of death for those ages 15 to 24, and the second leading cause of death for those ages 24 to 35. On average, suicide claims a life every 16.2 minutes.

The conference is aimed at a wide swath of individuals — including medical professionals, members of the clergy, social workers, human resource professionals, first responders, teachers, school administrators and counselors — to give them the information they need to recognize and appropriately address symptoms of depression and suicidal tendencies. The final day of the conference, Nov. 10, is for those who’ve lost loved ones to suicide and those who’ve survived suicide attempts.

“It takes a village to resolve this crisis,” Gail Urso said. “It’s going to take general (medical) practitioners, social workers, teachers, parents to look for signs. And then they’re going to have to know where to go for help.”

It’s information the Ursos wish they had had. They knew Kevin had struggled with depression, but they also knew he had been seeking help for it. Gail Urso said she and her husband “were shocked” when Kevin took his own life.

“We had no idea that suicide was even a possibility (with him),” she said.

Since his death, they’ve learned to recognize the signs that someone is at risk of ending his or her life.

The Ursos say it’s imperative to remove the stigma associated with suicide.

“I think people are becoming more aware that we are losing wonderful human beings to mental illness and depression that we could save,” John Urso said.

One of those on the frontlines in that effort is Jodi Jacobson Frey, a veteran suicide researcher and associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work leading the initiative Healthy Men Michigan. Using humor and a website that allows for anonymity, Healthy Men Michigan encourages men — especially in the working age category of 24-64, who are statistically at greater risk of suicide — to test for depression and find vetted resources nearby where they can get help, if needed. The majority of those who die from suicide aren’t being treated, Frey said.

“I think the connectedness is very important, to break down some of the barriers and stigmas that keep men from reaching out for help,” she said.

Frey said that in the two years since Healthy Men Michigan started, they’ve saved lives.

“We’re reaching a population that mental health has not typically been able to reach,” she said.

Men interested in learning more or taking an anonymous depression screening can visit healthymenmichigan.org.

“Seeking help is not a sign of weakness,” Frey said. “Help is available. Loved ones should not be scared to ask questions. … We need to reach out to the people we care about more in our busy lives and let them know we care, because not everybody is OK.”

Frey will be giving two presentations Nov. 9 — on suicide prevention in working-age men and a talk for first responders.

Since his younger brother Michael’s death from suicide in 1972, Rabbi Daniel Syme, the rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Hills, has become a leader in the fight against suicide. After decades of speaking on suicide with young people, Syme started the program A Single Soul to prevent suicide by training those who work with youths to recognize the signs that someone might be considering suicide and to learn what to do in those instances.

“Every time I saved a child’s life, it was as if I was symbolically saving my brother,” Syme said. “A Single Soul is really my way of making sense of my brother’s story.”

Syme will be part of a panel of clergy members speaking at the conference Nov. 9. While suicide was once regarded as a serious sin by many faiths, greater understanding of the underlying causes of suicide have led more faith groups to recognize that suicide is the result of illness, not personal moral failing, Syme said.

Leo Nouhan, of Grosse Pointe Park, is a Kevin’s Song board member and conference coordinator. A health care attorney, he said that while legally, mental illness is supposed to be treated the same as physical illness, in reality, that’s often not the case.

“There’s really not, still, parity. … There’s these constant battles that go on,” Nouhan said.

He said the Zero Suicide initiative — which started at Henry Ford Health System — is something other hospital systems and workplaces are starting to explore. It’s about training people to recognize the signs of depression and make sure that someone who might be suicidal gets immediate help.

“We want to change the culture,” Nouhan said. “We want to remove that stigma. With awareness comes prevention. All we can do is save lives. That’s not a bad thing.”

Nouhan said they want people from not just metro Detroit but from all over Michigan and elsewhere to know that Kevin’s Song can help connect them to people, organizations and information that can help.

“Kevin’s Song is a resource for them, if they have a loved one that’s struggling with thoughts of suicide, with severe depression,” he said.

The Ursos hope to alter attitudes about suicide and bring hope and healing to those who are struggling, along with their loved ones. They believe their late son — who found joy for a time assisting young men in crisis — would have approved.

“(Kevin) would have something funny to say, but he would be very proud,” Gail Urso said.

Conference fees range from $250 for all three days to $100 for Thursday or Friday only. Admission for the Saturday Survivor conference alone costs $50. Breakfast and lunch are included. Advance registration is preferred.

If you, or someone you know, is suffering from depression and is thinking of taking their life, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline toll-free at (800) 273-8255. To use the Crisis Text Line, text “Go” to 741741.

To register or for more information about the conference, visit kevinssong.org or call (313) 236-7109.