By Emily Williams
At the Beat the Odds Casino Night fundraiser, as guests bet against the table, they’ll be helping raise money to improve the odds for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention Alabama’s campaign against suicide.
The foundation has a goal of lowering the suicide rate by 20 percent by 2025. One of the main ways it works toward that goal is by educating the public.
When junior board member Catherine Bretz, a Birmingham resident by way of Mountain Brook, finds herself educating others on suicide prevention, she likes to throw out the statistic that 1 in 4 Americans will experience mental illness over the course of their life. Of that population, the foundation data estimates that 1 in 5 people with a mental illness will seek treatment.
In January, Bretz attended the AFSP Chapter Leadership Conference in California, where she had the opportunity to learn more in-depth information and statistics about depression and suicide.
Something she was surprised to hear is that more Americans die by suicide each year than are killed in homicides using a firearm.
“In our very politically charged world, I think it’s important for the Birmingham community to know that,” Bretz said.
In 2016, AFSP Alabama took a big step forward in reaching its goal to reduce the suicide rate by becoming one of six chapters to help institute a firearm safety pilot program – one of the programs that will benefit from funds raised through Beat the Odds.
“In the US, about half of all suicide deaths are by the use of a firearm. In the state of Alabama that number jumps to about 67 percent,” said Ashley Foster, area director of AFSP Alabama and Mississippi.
With help from the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the organization is working to provide firearms retailers and range owners with safer storage options while educating them on ways that they can identify a customer who may be at risk of taking their own life.
In addition to the firearm safety program, Beat the Odds funds will help support AFSP Alabama’s outreach programs “Talk Saves Lives” and the survivor outreach program.
Bretz, being a “survivor” of suicide following the death of a close relative, recently completed her training to become a volunteer for the survivor program and provide support to people coping with the death of a loved one.
Bretz also pointed to the importance of “Talk Saves Lives.” The program consists of trained volunteers who give presentations in classrooms and to community groups to educate people about suicide and mental illness, as well as how to prevent future deaths.
“Most people who take their lives exhibit one or more warning signs, either through what they say or what they do,” Foster said. “They could talk about being a burden to others, feeling trapped or experiencing unbearable pain.”
Foster noted that, because there isn’t one single cause when it comes to suicide, the warning signs vary. One of the most noticeable signs of someone who is potentially suicidal is a complete change in behavior. They may act more recklessly or withdraw from their lives, isolating themselves from their friends and their families.
With stigmas surrounding the topic of suicide and depression, Foster said one of the biggest challenges in reaching the organization’s 2025 goal is getting people who are at risk to treat their illnesses.
Shifting the subject from a hushed whisper to an open and educational discussion is one of the methods that molds ASFP programming.
“We need a culture where everyone knows it’s smart to take care of our mental health,” Foster said. “The more comfortable people are talking about mental health, the more likely they are to seek help.”
Foster agreed that using a social environment like a fundraiser is a great way to get people talking about mental illness in a relaxed setting.
“If we can create a fun and inviting atmosphere with games, food and drinks, then we are more likely to reach people who might be closed off to the subject or hesitant to learn more about AFSP,” Bretz said.
The Beat the Odds event will be held March 4 at Haven beginning at 7 p.m. In addition to casino games such as blackjack, Texas Hold’em and roulette, the festivities will include a silent auction, raffle prizes and more. Tickets begin at $45 with a high roller option available for $65.
For more information, visit afsp.org/chapter/afsp-alabama/.