In 2011, Shane Simerley’s cousin, who was also his best friend, put a gun to his head and killed himself, snuffing out his own young life and rocking the world of his family and friends.
"It changed my life," says Simerley. "I couldn’t understand it. I just shut down and shut everyone out. I wasn’t okay at all."
Simerley served as a pall bearer at his cousin’s funeral, then went home and continued his tortured silence, until one day he came close to taking his own life.
"My mom was gone and I was in my room feeling like there was no point in going on." Simerley pressed a knife to his throat and almost went further, but the vision of his mother coming home and finding her son dead jolted him and he put the knife down.
Soon after, Simerley opened up to his sister and started learning the importance of talking through his feelings. "There’s something taboo about discussing suicide," he says. "But you can’t figure out how to cope if you can’t talk to anyone."
It was a good thing for Simerley that he embarked on a healing process when he did, because another blow was awaiting him – five years after losing his best friend, on Thanksgiving Day, he lost his uncle to suicide.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, the suicide rate in the United States is up 24% since 1999. The rate started rising more quickly in 2007.
In 2013, on average, one person in the U.S. committed suicide every 13 minutes, 113 people every day. 1.3 million attempted suicide. 8% of high school students attempted suicide at least once. Nearly twice as many people die each year by suicide than are murdered.
Catoosa County has also seen a rise in suicide, with 26 lives lost this year, a higher rate than counties of comparable size throughout the state of Georgia, according to County Coroner Vanita Hullander.
Increasingly, people are looking at life as so hopeless that it’s not worth living.
As he’s come to grips with the self-inflicted deaths of two people close to him, Simerley has developed a passion for helping those who might be considering suicide. The CDC estimates that to be at least 9.3 million adults and 17% of high school students each year.
While on Facebook one day, Simerley saw a post about a girl he had graduated with – Kayla Brogdon. She was a psychology major and had just given a talk on suicide at the Catoosa Family Collaborative, where she volunteers.
"I’ve had a lot of friends who have intentionally overdosed," says Brogdon. "Many of them come from homes where their parents are addicts or divorced or neglectful, and they don’t see any hope for their future."
Simerley got in touch with Brogdon, whose goal is to work with the Department of Juvenile Justice. The two discussed their common passion and decided to make a video and post it on Simerley’s YouTube channel with the hope of helping others – those who might be thinking about taking their life or those who have lost someone they love to suicide.
Ringgold High School offered the use of their recording studio, and Simerley and Brogdon met there December 14 to plan and produce their video, which was online in less than a week.
"I hope the video helps a lot of people," says Simerley. "We’ve already heard from one person who said he was having bad thoughts about taking his life. People need to know it’s okay to talk about suicide and that there are places where they can get help. Silence is not okay."
"If you’re feeling desperate," says Brogdon, "you need to talk to someone. If you can’t turn to someone close to you, there are hotlines you can call."
The video production, titled "Brighter Dawn: The Collateral Damage of Suicide," provides the number of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, as well as a text option for finding help.
"They say six people are intimately affected by each suicide," says Simerley. "My life has two parts – before my cousin’s suicide and after; nothing will ever be the same as it was before he killed himself. I want to take this tragedy and make good of it for others."
Simerley and Brogdon’s video can be seen at https://youtu.be/ADKrXH8JvQk. "We hope people will share it and help end the taboo that keeps those who are desperate and hurting from seeking help," says Simerley.
Help for those struggling with suicidal thoughts or dealing with the aftermath of a suicide is available at suicidepreventionlifeline.org or by calling 800-273-8255.