At town hall meeting, straight talk about suicide

By on September 29, 2022

The Sept. 27 Dare County town hall on suicide featured a documentary with moving accounts from those affected by suicide, ominous warnings about the increase in suicide among young people and practical information about the reasons people take their owns lives and ways to prevent it.

The event, titled “Shattering the Silence around Suicide in Dare County: You Are Not Alone,” was held at First Flight High School and organized by the Breaking Through Task Force, the Saving Lives Task Force, Be Resilient OBX and the Dare County Department of Health and Human Services.

Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, but it is the eighth leading cause of death in Dare County, according to the documentary shown as part of the event. In addition, the Outer Banks Hospital’s Emergency Department recorded 19 suicide attempts and 62 suicidal ideations from October 2021 through Sept. 8, 2022.

Nearly one in five adults in the U.S. live with mental illness, according to the National Institutes for Health, and ever since the first Community Health Needs Assessment was completed in the early 2000s, mental health has been a concern in Dare County, according to Kelly Nettnin, chair of the Breaking Through Task Force.

“It’s a complicated issue,” Collen Coyner said, referring to suicide. A retired schoolteacher who moved from Virginia to Kill Devil Hills three years ago, she was one of about 80 event attendees. Coyner was there “mainly because in my family, we’ve been touched by suicide,” and she said she was interested in potential volunteer opportunities.

Kerri Appelbaum was reading brochures from the informational tables staffed by local medical and mental health professionals prior to the documentary screening. After retiring from her career as a school psychologist in upstate New York, she moved to Corolla, where she now teaches social and emotional curriculum at the public charter school.

“Unfortunately, we’ve had our share of suicides up there [in Corolla] too,” Appelbaum said, explaining that she wanted to bring back any resources she could for the school and those families.

In the roughly 30-minute documentary produced by Benny Baldwin, mental health professionals shared research, which was interwoven with six personal stories from Dare County residents affected by suicide.

The documentary showed that sometimes people talk about suicide before they take action, while in other cases, there are subtle or no outward signs or symptoms at all. Examples of suicide risk factors include ineffective coping skills, no reasons for living, discrimination, stress of acculturation, historical trauma, unhealthy relationships and feeling isolated.


In the documentary and the discussions that followed, people talked about how mental illness, substance misuse, job loss, grief and criminal or legal problems can also contribute to the incidence of suicide. “It’s hard for people to say I need help; I have a problem,” Sweet Pea Tillett said in the documentary. She talked about the range of emotions she’s experienced, from anger to sadness to confusion and feeling “in the dark” after she lost her husband Michael Hauk to suicide in 2014, following depression that set in after his unexpected triple-bypass surgery.

“There’s always someone out here who will grab your hand and listen,” she encouraged viewers.

Tillett attended the event and spoke during the public comment about how she’d also lost four friends to suicide here on the Outer Banks over a six-month period in 2014 and how she is now “a testimony” that people can survive that difficult experience.

Jennifer Craddock Gilbert shared in the film that she’d attempted to hang herself and is alive because her husband got her down. Life circumstances had become so tough for her that her first words after the failed attempt were, “it didn’t work.”

That Monday, she went to work like nothing happened. “There is no greater actor or actress out there than a person that doesn’t want to keep living,” she told viewers. Her closest friends convinced her to go to an inpatient treatment center, where she got on medication for the first time. There, “it dawned on me that I’m not the only one in the universe dealing with this.”

“I wish we had something like this in Currituck,” RJ Cooper said after the event. He lost his 53-year-old son to suicide in December 2020, and it surprised and shook the whole family.

“We think about it every day,” Cooper said, tearing up.

Cooper and his wife have been raising awareness about suicide ever since, having put up a billboard in Currituck County and hosting an annual Stomp the Stigma 5K in May—their son’s birth month.

Part of the panel discussion at the Sept. 27 event included disturbing news about the incidence of mental health problems and suicidal ideations among younger people.

Dr. Ashley Clower of Surf Pediatrics and Medicine sees patients up to age 18 and has recently experienced “a huge increase” in office visits specifically for mental health reasons.

 “Unfortunately, suicide is happening more and more at younger and younger ages,” said Susan Lee, a licensed clinical mental health counselor. She said a middle school student in Raleigh took his life several weeks ago after suffering bullying.

“With children it might be impulse and opportunity…not that they’ve planned it out,” Lee noted.

Proactively protecting children is key, said Christie McEwan of Outer Banks Counseling Services, who added, “When they’re showing signs, you have to do whatever you can.”

Family safety plans could include removing all knives from the kitchen; taking a child’s door off the hinges; or putting guns, ammunition and medications in lock boxes that children can’t access, McEwan said.

A Trillium Health Resources representative shared that there are free, virtual “mental health first aid” trainings on Oct. 25 and Oct. 27, which teach people to recognize and respond to mental illness and substance use disorders in either youth or adult populations, respectively.

For immediate help, call, text or chat the 988 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Other resources include private providers and the local mobile crisis team. For more information or to view more resources, visit,, or






  • Travis

    Your life is the one thing that you really and truly own in this world. It should be your choice if you want to return it to the universe. You don’t know another person’s pain or grief. If more time was spent on learning to accept and respect another person’s decision then, counterintuitively, you might see a decline in suicides. People are ashamed to talk about suicidal thoughts. If suicide was socially acceptable it might generate conversations that ultimately give the suicidal person reasons to continue living.

    Thursday, Sep 29 @ 9:55 am
  • Resident

    It’s hard to live here. Low income, high cost of living, feelings of never being able to get into a home via rent or ownership. Dating is difficult. Work is long. Prospects of hope are very low when it comes to fulfilling life long goals.

    This area is designed to be a tourist destination. That is how the commissioners have shaped this county. They profit off of tourism personally, and the tax revenue makes them happy because it makes it look like they’re amazing leaders. They’ve destroyed the area from being a family oriented community set up for growth. Like the commissioners, you’ve got to have your hands in the tourism revenue pocket.

    Thursday, Sep 29 @ 3:59 pm
  • Alf

    Ok to kill your baby but not ok to kill yourself. Got it.

    Thursday, Sep 29 @ 4:46 pm

    The symposium was geared specifically, to bring awareness and initiate breaking the stigma surrounding the uncomfortableness people feel when discussing mental health or suicide and provide resources for such. It was a great production of testimonies and informative Q & A post session. I think it will contribute to the start of many future endeavors for our community to come together even more, for the sake of mental health in Dare County. Kudos to all of those who sponsored, provided information booths for resources, and especially to those who shared from a very vulnerable place.

    Thursday, Sep 29 @ 5:54 pm
  • Patricia Nash

    Agreeing with Travis..instead of setting up real help as in Expanding Medicaid and real help for Seniors and the poor it is all this community awareness mess…all this tiptoeing around the real help..and what is happening with all this millions of dollars the county got in the Pharmaceutical settlement…25k for a couple of Grants that are practically impossible to get..someones lining their pockets and its not the poor OR seniors in Dare County..

    Friday, Sep 30 @ 8:39 pm
  • Recovery Advocate

    Regarding the settlement grants Patricia: they absolutely were not impossible to get. Matter of fact, of all who applied, only one application was denied. And that was simply because the proposal was not an evidence-based program. I can assure you no one is lining their pockets with that settlement money. It’s going towards programs and people who are helping those suffering. Also, you say “millions” as if we received a lump sum of cash. The money is spread out over 18 years. Do the math: no one is getting rich. And the help we are able to give the recovering community is still minimal.

    Monday, Oct 3 @ 9:59 pm