Heartbreak in Anadarko
The Anadarko community is reeling in the wake of the fourth suicide of a young person since the start of the year.
The latest tragedy occured Tuesday night when an 11-year-old girl took her own life. When Anadarko police officers arrived on the scene, they found the girl dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Ages 11, 16, 21, 22
The girl's suicide followed similar cases involving a 22-year-old, a 21-year-old and a 16-year-old. Police Chief Jason Smith said his department and his community are hurting.
"We're all reeling here right now," Smith said Thursday. "Each one of these affects us deeply. The community got knocked down to their knees and we're trying to get back up."
None of the four cases appear to be connected or to have similar motivations, which makes it difficult to address the apparent problem.
"If we could put it under a category, like bullying, we'd put our resources toward addressing bullying," Smith said. "That's the problem right now. There are so many causes. Suicide is a feeling of helplessness and that there's nothing you feel you can do about it."
'Care station' established
Helpless is one thing Smith does not want his town to feel like. In response to the latest suicide, he joined municipal and community leaders in a series of meetings Wednesday and Thursday to formulate ways to address not just one apparent cause but any that can be tackled.
The problem will take a comprehensive approach and it's not going to be quick or easy. But the groundwork has already been laid, as a care station has been set up by The Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services at the Physician's Hospital for anyone affected by the tragedies or who might need assistance themselves.
Smith said leaders need to be methodical with their approach because the wrong course of action could make things worse.
"We worry about sensationalizing these tragedies and giving someone else an idea to do this themselves," he said. "The Department of Mental Health warned us about that. Someone's initials are on a bracelet that's passed around and someone sees that and feels that's how they can be recognized. That's not the right way."
Much of the work being done to address the suicides is behind the scenes. Kenneth Corn, Anadarko city manager, has met with the Department of Mental Health about options, including a "Lifelines" suicide prevention training course for Anadarko Public Schools. The course would cost $450 and it's up to the school administration to purchase it or not. In the meantime, he's spoken with city employees so that they can be more aware of citizens.
"Our approach needs to be compassionate, but also practical with the realities of mental health," Corn said. "The staff have been told to keep an eye out with people who come here to City Hall or if they're out and just be more aware of our fellow citizens."
The city manager emphasized the importance of the care station at the hospital, calling it a "vital operation." He also hopes more can be done to address the helpless feeling many youths have growing up in Anadarko.
"We have a lot of young people here who feel they don't have any hope," Corn said. "We need to make sure that they know we're here and we care about them and we want to help them."
Members of the religious community gathered Thursday to offer their support. After a meeting with Smith earlier in the day, Donnie Edmondson, pastor of Virginia Avenue Baptist Church, said Anadarko is starting to come together. He and his fellow pastors have organized an outreach event for Jan. 31 that he hopes can begin to heal some of the wounds that have harmed the city.
"Right now, we need spiritual wisdom," Edmondson said.
Edmondson believes a "spirit of suicide" has taken hold among the youth. Much of the town has been left in a state of shock following the fourth suicide, the pastor said. Many are hurt. Others are left in complete disarray wondering what could drive four young people with their lives ahead of them to turn a gun on themselves.
"In our church, there are so many that can't believe this is happening in our own town," Edmondson said. "They think it will happen in another place some other town. They don't expect it to happen here."
The tragedies have galvanized Anadarko as a community and brought it closer together. It was never more apparent than at the end of the school day Wednesday when a group of more than 20 men, women and children many with signs in their hands gathered outside Anadarko High School to show their support. Their signs featured statements like, "You're alive for a reason. Don't ever give up" and "We care. You are strong." Many pointed to Tonegyahdae, a man who first took a stand Wednesday following the death of the 11-year-old girl, as inspiration. For his part, the man just wanted to show children they are loved.
"We had one person commit suicide and that's one person too many," he said. "It's now up to four. That's just four too many."