In a world where people seem to be getting meaner, make a choice to be nice

This is part of the series Shore Stories: Life Along the Lakeshore, columns by local residents about their lives. 
 
Within my circle of friends, I share memories dating back (way, way back) to elementary school. Some are junior high school friends and some are from high school.

One of those friends has been missed for a very long time.

Her name was Sally.

We met at a summer camp in Michigan -- I can't recall if our group was in Grayling or Alpena, just that we met during one of those exceptional-summer-weather weeks.

We bonded in the manner of typical campers, imperfectly. Sally was the girl everyone liked. She was funny and could be goofy. Thoughtful. A short, slender girl with blue eyes and a splash of light-brown freckles across her nose, which she didn't particularly like, but the rest of us thought looked cute. When we were allowed to literally let our pinned-up hair down, Sally's was a cascade of red-gold curls, the envy of the other five or six of us in our cabin.

Sally’s death

At the end of that week, we girls exchanged addresses and promised to write. In those pre-cell phone, pre-internet days, a toll call just to chat with a newfound-but-faraway pal was cause for losing phone privileges altogether. We mailed handwritten letters, sometimes postcards, and watched for the letter carrier to bring the replies.

Then one of the older girls from camp did call me, with some bad news about Sally.

I still don't understand what was happening in Sally's life or why she chose to end it. We didn't have grief counselors back then. Parents murmured something vaguely comforting and life moved on.

In those days and at our ages, no one talked about suicide or its underpinnings: depression, anxiety, some other mental-health issue, or someone being relentlessly bullied. We didn't even use the phrase "mental health" yet.

Other words, either clinical or unkind, were used for people with psychological disorders. We didn't talk about mental illness the way we might have talked about someone with, say, measles or diabetes.

The shock of Sally's death feels recent, even now, though I didn't know her well. What I do know about the mid-1970s is that people of all ages who needed help had few resources. Stigma drenched the notion of even talking about such things.

A family history

We whispered about it. We kids eavesdropped on adults who talked about it. As we grew, the grownups in our families would sometimes share a story of some unforgotten relative or friend.
 
Mom's childhood pal Geri, who died as a young adult. A great-grandmother on my dad's side. A brother-in-law of Mom's -- he may have had a type of post-operative depression doctors understood better some 20 years later, when my dad was getting a similar procedure. 
 
Doctors told Dad to expect depression and not be shy about getting professional help. That information may have saved his life. For the first time, he and I had open conversations about emotions and feelings. He was 70. His paternal grandmother died by suicide during a prolonged bout of postpartrum depression ("melancholy" in 16th century parlance, and "postpartum delirium" by the 19th). She had been so ill, her husband brought her to what was then called an asylum, while he cared for their children. That's about all I know of Mary Grace.
 
If I pause to think about the names, faces, and stories, so many appear.
 
An eighth-grade classmate of my son's. The mother-in-law I never met. A friend's daughter. An acquaintance's husband. The list was already too long years ago.
 
Far too many losses, still. 
 
These days, we have more resources, though medical care is still challenging to access. Hopefully less stigma. 
 
More people are willing to talk about their feelings, and more people are willing to be supportive.

More opportunities to save lives.
 
Be Nice. program
 
One of the newer resources I often recommend is the Be Nice. program, which is an intentional way to do a self-check, learn about mental health -- and learn how to talk about it with others, as well as raise the subject if someone you care about is behaving in concerning ways, or decides to open up to you.
 
Think of benice.org as a prevention plan, not an emergency service. You can help bring Be Nice. training at your workplace, as we have at WHTC and 927 The Van, where I work. You can introduce Be Nice. at schools, your church, volunteer organizations and even within your family and circle of friends.
 
The “nice” in Be Nice. is an acronym: Notice what's right, and what's different. Invite yourself to reach out. Challenge stigma, whenever you encounter it. Empower yourself and others with knowledge and learn protective factors.
 
Of course, if you need urgent help, call 911.
 
Despite all current resources, we still have social media platforms that can cause a lot of unneeded mental anguish -- or are used to present a fine facade when someone is in a lot of pain. We still have a healthcare infrastructure that is difficult to navigate and sometimes unaffordable.
 
But know this: Even when you may not be able to see or feel it, you matter to people who know and love you, and you matter to people who hardly know you, but like you.
 
You matter. Stick around. You're having an experience that later could lead to an empathic, life-saving response to someone else's pain.
 
Other resources:
 
Toll-free National Suicide Prevention Hotline, 800-273-8255. Phone services are making preparations for a 3-digit suicide-prevention hotline, 988, due to be launched next summer. For now, phone services are helping us transition into dialing 10-digit numbers for all calls to avoid confusion with 988. Details: https://www.fcc.gov/suicide-prevention-hotline
 
Visit the Metanoia site, https://metanoia.org/suicide/, which offers resources for those whose pain tests the limits of coping.
 
Those more comfortable talking via text can get free, confidential help 24/7 by texting HOME to 741741, or visiting https://www.crisistextline.org/
 
Peg McNichol is 1450 and 99.7 WHTC's morning news anchor and has been a working journalist for more than 20 years. She is one of WHTC's two Be Nice. representatives at the station.