TAMPA, Fla. — September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, and Hillsborough County has the fourth highest number of suicides in the state.
Suicide hits very close to home for us at ABC Action News.
At the end of August, a former colleague, Mary Geraci, died by suicide, with countless friends posting on her Facebook page in disbelief.
"She was an iconic giver and lover and I miss her," said Kimberli Cummings, who called Mary a close friend for over 20 years, always wanting to help anyone and everyone. "She had so many people that loved her, loved her, liked her, wanted her, needed her, adored her, respected her! And I truly believe that she knew that."
So when Mary was gone, Cummings was in shock, like so many others.
"The last person I would imagine. It just seemed so inconsistent, so incongruent with everything I thought I knew about Mary Geraci," said former ABC Action News colleague Brendan Mclaughlin.
Mclaughlin often worked with Mary, even traveling to Cuba with her to cover the Pope's visit in 1998.
"Mary was our photographer and she spoke fluent Spanish. She made that trip so much more successful and so much more fun by her being there," Brendan said.
Brendan fondly remembers her incredible optimism and strength.
Others even looked up to Mary.
"I could always call her if I was feeling down or whatever. She would be there for me," said Matt McGlashen, a photojournalist at the station.
McGlashen shared a special friendship with Mary for over two decades.
So her sudden death has him questioning, did he miss any signs of her suffering?
"It seems like all of us should have noticed and none of us did. So that's kind of sad," he said with regret.
But according to experts, sometimes there are no signs.
"They don't want to bother you. They don't want to burden you. And so they create a world where they are always strong and confident and capable until they've carried out the plan," explained Natasha Pierre, Executive Director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) in Hillsborough County.
Pierre says suicides have spiked since the pandemic began, with the isolation and increased stillness becoming unbearable for so many.
"There's compounded issues, compounded frustrations that are really effecting everyone at this point," she said.
Recent data shows more and more people have increased anxiety, depression and thoughts of suicide.
So Pierre recommends we step out of our comfort zone with friends and family, ask specific questions and pay attention to any changes in behavior.
"Are they no longer interested in things that once brought them joy? Are there friends that they're no longer interested in hanging around? Is someone missing from social media? Is someone still grieving from the loss of a loved one?" she added.
And Pierre explains that COVID-19 has shed a light on the great need to bolster our mental health. And she wants everyone to realize, you are not alone.
"Please connect with us, connect with a friend, connect with a family member because that's going to reaffirm that you are connected to a larger community that cares about you," she said.
And if you're afraid to admit you might need help, Pierre has this advice.
"For anyone who's suicidal or having suicidal thoughts, our message would be 'give us a chance.' Give us a chance to reinvigorate the hope that tomorrow could be better. That tomorrow will be a day with less pain, less worry, less frustrations. Reach out to us," Pierre said.
NAMI Hillsborough holds support groups three times a week in the morning, midday and evening. All sessions are free of charge.
Go to www.NAMI.org for more information or call the NAMI Helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264).
And if you don't want to talk on the phone, text NAMI at 7-4-1-7-4-1 and you'll be connected to a free, trained crisis counselor on the Crisis Text Line.
Also, the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay is available 24-7 by calling 2-1-1.
And the National Suicide Hot Line can be reached at 1-800-273-talk (8255).