‘I’m not ashamed anymore’: In hopes of helping others, Hadley woman shares her personal journey while working with regional suicide coalition

By EMILY THURLOW

Staff Writer

Published: 03-20-2023 2:48 PM

HADLEY — When her classmates were all frolicking and laughing in the schoolyard, Carmen Lee thought everyone was pretending, so she decided to do the same.

She pretended straight through her teens and into her 20s, and graduated from the University of California with a degree in English literature. The pretending continued when she became a flight attendant, which took her all over the world. She was young, educated, attractive and experiencing life, but through it all, she was exhausted and couldn’t figure out why.

“We all have to ‘stage’ to some degree, but I did it 100% of the time,” she said. “I wondered if I had some incurable disease.”

So she kept on pretending.

Then she found her “Mr. Right,” got married, and had a baby. In those days, the late 1950s, the airline industry required women to remain single to keep their jobs, so a marriage meant that she was done with that career field. So, the San Francisco native moved to Oklahoma City with her husband to raise her daughter.

The constant fatigue followed. When her daughter was about a year and a half old, Lee began to stop eating and stop talking. To help out, Lee’s mother-in-law came to stay with her. At that point in her life, Lee made it a point to try to keep her home neat as her insides were feeling anything but that.

After dinner night, while her husband was traveling, Lee’s mother-in-law started pouring Folgers ground coffee into a canister, but missed and spilled the coffee all over the kitchen floor.

The spill sent Lee over the edge and led to her attempting to kill herself for first time.

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What she didn’t realize at the time was that the experience would become one of several significant bouts of severe depression, requiring numerous hospitalizations, but would also drive her to advocate for others and work to prevent people from ending their lives.

Now 87 years old and living in Hadley, Lee is a member of the Pioneer Valley Coalition for Suicide Prevention, a local chapter of the state organization that provides resources to people struggling with suicidal thoughts or persistent feelings, survivors of suicide attempts, and those who have survived the loss of a loved one to suicide in Franklin, Hampshire and Hampden counties.

“I’m not ashamed anymore,” she said.

She’s also not alone in wanting to help others.

Karen Carreira and Jen Matoney, co-chairs of the coalition, have dedicated much of their lives to helping people and their loved ones cope with depression and suicidal thoughts; to educating the public about healthy ways to discuss the sensitive topic; to providing a support system for survivors and their loved ones; and to advocating for policy changes that will improve mental health and prevent suicide.

As loss survivors — meaning they’ve lost someone to suicide — Carreira and Matoney are passionate about their work on this topic. Lee, who considers herself someone with lived experience, is also a loss survivor, as her brother died by suicide.

“Part of being a loss survivor is revisiting all of the memories and the things that led up to their death,” said Matoney, who lost her mother at 58 to suicide in 2007. “It’s so hard … but I have gotten to a place now where I don’t do that anymore.”

Carreira lost her son to suicide in 2018. He was 15 years old.

“The emotions are still there … I could cry about it at any second ... and for some people, that that’s what they need to do. But that’s not my spirit and I don’t think that that’s why he was given to me, or this happened to me,” she said. “And so, I’m going to take the energy and the education and the I don’t know, fearlessness, to try to help others not feel like I do.”

In addition to working with the coalition, Carreira is a trainer, a field advocate and on the board of directors of the Massachusetts Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Matoney is also a volunteer field advocate and trainer on the board of directors for the Massachusetts Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and was recognized last year for her volunteer work with that group with an award for leadership in suicide prevention by the Massachusetts Coalition for Suicide Prevention.

She has also received the University of Massachusetts Amherst Community Salute Award for dedication to promoting mental health and preventing suicide across the state and nation.

Responding to the behavior of mental health

To previous generations, the perception of those who struggled with mental health or had suicidal thoughts or behaviors was a “character flaw,” Lee said.

“Many had this misconception that people are dangerous,” she said.

Her experience following her past attempts to end her life weren’t always positive. Through an especially trying time in Texas following the loss of her horse, Lee tried to end her life and ended up in a hospital where she was handcuffed to a gurney for 19 hours in her own waste.

“That’s how people were treated without an advocate. They have to have an advocate,” she said. “You don’t have much energy when you’re fighting that much pain. And you don’t fit into the norm. You know, life, society tells us what we’re supposed to be doing and how to respond.

“We’re supposed to do this and we’re supposed to raise our child, and we’re supposed to go grocery shopping... And you can’t do it. And then you feel unworthy.”

Lee was able to find support and treatment with a psychiatrist and hasn’t been hospitalized since she was 47 years old.

She also credits finding strength to the founding of a speakers bureau in San Francisco in 1990. The educational outreach program, Stamp Out Stigma, was designed to dispel myths surrounding mental illness. Speakers would talk about how mental illness has affected their lives, relating their own experiences with stigma and how they have worked to change the perceptions of others.

Individuals who attended the presentations were encouraged to ask questions and share their own perceptions. In total, the group hosted 2,600 presentations over the course of 27 years.

“The speakers bureau helped a lot. We were constantly with people who honored us, who valued us. We were making a great difference by putting out a different viewpoint on mental health,” she said.

In the same spirit, she’s continued to share her story through work of various boards and nonprofit organizations, including speaking at the Hadley Senior Center at a behavioral health and anti-stigma forum. Hayley Wood, director of Hadley Senior Services, organized the forum at Lee’s request.

“I have been learning as much as I can about how older adults can access behavioral health services and I’ve been learning about different models of service and ways to encourage self-care,” Wood said. “I felt eager to take up Carmen’s suggestion because it would be a way to get diverse, local professionals in the room talking specifically about how aging intersects with behavioral health.”

Language matters

Messaging related to suicide has also evolved over time.

One myth that the Pioneer Valley Coalition for Suicide Prevention continues to bust is that talking about suicide encourages the behavior.

“Talking about it in a proper way does not give people an idea or create another suicide,” Carreira said.

What can create problems, however, is when death by suicide or attempts are misrepresented or sensationalized.

In discussing Lee’s story, for example, the coalition noted how important it is not to include details surrounding the methods she used in attempting to take her own life. Matoney said providing those kinds of descriptions could be harmful to those who have been struggling with suicidal intensity and could influence them to take similar kind of action.

If people are concerned about someone showing some warning signs like an extreme change in mood, or are suddenly beginning to give away their possessions, Matoney said it is important to talk directly about suicide.

“We do recommend you talk directly to them and let them know what you’ve been noticing. Let them know you’re concerned and ask if they’ve been thinking about ending their life or considering suicide,” she said.

“By naming it directly, you’re letting the person know that you are concerned and want to help. You’re letting them know you’re not afraid to discuss this topic and that they can talk about it. Having permission to talk about it is huge because so many people feel like they have to keep it hidden. It’s so stigmatized in our society.”

In fighting that stigma, the coalition makes a point to be present in western Massachusetts communities. Carreira said their work involves taking the time to have conversations and educate the public through what they call “tabling,” or setting up tables at events to educate the public. The organization also partners with community groups to get their message out.

“It’s taking the time to have these conversations,” she said.

Though each of their stories are different, each has found their own form of acceptance through support systems, and in doing so, supporting others.

“Meeting other people who had been through something similar was huge,” Matoney said.

For Lee, being a member of the coalition means she can reach people and maybe make a difference.

“I want to help prevent people from doing this terrible thing — ending their lives,” she said.

The coalition is also looking for more volunteers who are just as passionate about the cause.

For more information, email pvcsp.outreach@gmail.com.

HELP IS AVAILABLE: If you or someone you know is in crisis, call or text 988 for the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.

Emily Thurlow can be reached at ethurlow@gazettenet.com.]]>