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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, April 7, 2011

Bringing suicide out of the darkness
Barr to represent Capital District for Jefferson Award

By Anne Hayden

GUILDERLAND — W. Brian Barr has spent more than a quarter of a century trying to understand his son’s suicide, and throughout that time he has reached out to help the community understand suicide in general.

On Monday night, he was recognized for his accomplishments when he was chosen from a pool of finalists for the Jefferson Awards to go to Washington, D.C. and represent the Capital Region.

The Jefferson Awards recognize, inspire, and activate volunteerism and public service in communities. They were established in 1972 to serve as a call to action for volunteers.

On Tuesday, the day after winning the award, Barr was contacted for help by a family whose child had completed suicide.

“Because of the award recognition and knowledge of my work in the suicide area a friend of the family reached out to me. This is where the media are powerful in assisting by casting a light on a subject long impeded by darkness,” said Barr.

Barr’s son, Kevin, killed himself when he was 18, after being hospitalized and diagnosed with schizophrenia during his first suicide attempt. Barr was able to speak to his son while he was in the trauma unit after his first attempt, and he told his father he “just wanted to die.”

As Barr struggled to reconcile his son’s death in the following months, he realized that there was a stigma attached to suicide that “stifled understanding and stagnated the healing process.” The media offered to disguise his voice and blur out his face, in case he was too embarrassed to be identified. 

He credits the Good Samaritans with helping him cope with the loss of his son.

Barr said that the through the Samaritans, an organization founded in England in 1953 to train people to listen to other people’s problems through a helpline, he found what he needed to begin healing.

“People need somebody to listen to them. They need to know somebody is interested in understanding the enormity of their loss, the huge hole that’s been left in their lives by this sudden violent death,” Barr said. That, along with public speaking, is a role Barr has been fulfilling for the past 25 years.

As a mental health practitioner by profession, Barr, now retired, worked with youth for more than 30 years as a social worker. He uses his years of work as a mental health and substance-abuse expert, along with his personal experience, to try to demystify suicide and help prevent it.

“We must educate and arm our youth,” Barr said. Individuals who knew Barr’s background and his situation began to reach out to him for help dealing with friends and family members of suicide victims; teachers asked him to talk to students; and parents asked him to speak to parenting groups.

His most important message, he says, is that being suicidal is not shameful or something to hide. Suicidal thoughts must be addressed immediately. He likens suicidal thoughts to being doubled over with pain — a perilous symptom requiring immediate medical attention.

“If you find yourself dwelling upon the thought that the world will not be impacted by your loss, that is a danger sign. Don’t stop, don’t think, just get help,” he said. He also warns people not to think that others will be able to tell how much pain they are in unless they verbalize it.

“They have to let somebody know — voice it, act on it. Don’t think someone can see in their eyes and see the danger they’re in, because no one can do it,” said Barr. 

Suicide may be prevented in some cases, but it can’t always be prevented, he said. There is no one specific cause of suicide; it could be due to depression, mental illness, drug use, or any other number of factors. There is no one specific model for a suicidal person.

“Not everyone suffering from depression will commit suicide — some will. What’s the difference? I don’t know,” Barr said. He called suicide a terrible disease that runs rampant. He likened to the death of his son through suicide to the death of a child through cancer.

“We need a full-out assault on suicide as an entity. We need a lot of research monies that we are not getting,” said Barr. Each year, over 30,000 Americans kill themselves; 8,000 are youth between the ages of 10 and 24.

In terms of suicide having a stigma attached, Barr said, “We are so much further ahead than we used to be.” He says that some of the progress is due to the media being forthright about the subject. In 1998, he wrote a piece for Prevention Magazine titled “Saving a Teenager’s Life.”

“We still have a long way to go, but we are bringing the topic of suicide out of the darkness,” said Barr.

In addition to his public speaking on the topic of suicide, Barr has been involved with the United Way, the Employee Assistance Program, the Neighborhood Resource Center, and the Senior Hope Program. He also served, for a time, as the chairman of the Family and Children’s Service Agency of Albany, Inc.

“I really am humbled that they chose me,” said Barr, of going to D. C. to represent the Capital District.

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