“Nobody could have imagined how badly Lawrence was struggling or just how much he was hurting. The worst of it all is that his struggle was largely silent,” Ian Lieberman wrote in an email to friends and then forwarded to me as I researched this story.
Lawrence Dimmitt IV, a seventh generation Floridian, grandson of the founder of the Dimmitt Automotive Group, and former head of Clearwater’s Dimmitt Chevrolet dealership, died by suicide in 2017 at age 32.
His family and close friends, including Lieberman, a Tampa restaurant entrepreneur who met Lawrence in first grade, have bravely taken that tragedy and turned it into what they hope will be a powerful turning point in the national conversation about suicide, depression, and mental health.
“At first we were just in shock. It came as such a surprise that a vibrant, outgoing and successful person would take his life without any of us clearly seeing warning signs,” says Mallory Dimmitt, one of Lawrence’s three sisters.
“As we found out how prevalent suicide is and what a growing problem it is across all ages, we thought we need to do something about it and to get the word out so others won’t have to go through what we did,” she adds.
This past weekend, “Reeling in Stigma,” the first signature event for the Love IV Lawrence Foundation took place at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. The event was held in The Reef, located on the first floor of the USFSP Student Union, and in a second floor gathering space.
“My brother was a big fisherman so the name of the event and the location were very fitting,” says Mallory.
A photo on the Love IV Lawrence Facebook page shows Lawrence in the Brazilian Amazon holding an enormous catch from a flying fishing expedition in October 2016.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people ages 5 to 34 and the fourth leading cause for people ages 35 to 54. That doesn’t include the millions of people who thought about suicide or attempted it.
The Florida Suicide Prevention Coordinating Council calls suicide, “a major public health issue and tragic, but preventable event with devastating impact on families and communities.”
In Florida alone, there were 3,187 lives lost to suicide in 2017.
As the Dimmitt family and close friends got together to talk about what had happened, just talking about suicide openly was cathartic for the family, says Liz Dimmitt, another of Lawrence’s sisters.
Not keeping it a secret also made it possible for other people to come forward and share their own experiences. “It’s been surprising to learn how many people have been touched by suicide,” says Liz.
One of the issues that really stood out for the family was just how strong a stigma there is about suicide and how that prevents people from reaching out for health.
“There’s a common thread in mental health issues -- how alone people feel,” says Mallory. “That really jumped out for us. We thought this is a message we can do something about. We want to break down the barriers. To let people know they’re not alone. There is help and there is hope.”
Lieberman agrees. “The quiet struggle people go through needs to be quiet no longer. We want people to have the ability to say, ‘No, I’m not OK,’ and to be able to seek help and understand what resources are there for them.”
Putting concerns into action
The Dimmitt family launched The Love IV Lawrence Foundation about 15 months ago to honor Lawrence and to support education, awareness, and training in the area of depression, suicide and mental health. The Community Foundation of Tampa Bay manages the fund.
“We thought what are the kinds of activities a foundation can do to support mental health issues in our community,” says Mallory. “We wanted to hone in on combating the stigma, but we also wanted to see how we could support the local and national organizations that are already doing good work in the mental health field.”
April Lott is president and CEO of Directions for Living, a Clearwater-based mental health services provider for children and adults. She’s also one of the board members for the Love IV Lawrence Foundation.
“I was a speaker on a panel during a Clearwater Chamber of Commerce event for women and my topic was mental health and the secrets we don’t talk about,” says Lott. “I told the audience that suicide is 100 percent preventable.
“After the talk, someone in the audience came up and asked if I would be willing to meet with the Dimmitt family and to serve as one of their mental health advisors as they moved forward to accomplish what they wanted to do,” Lott adds. “Of course, I said yes.”
Lott says she stands by her statement that suicide is preventable, but clarifies that it requires timely identification, intervention and a change in society’s attitude, especially long-standing cultural and religious beliefs toward suicide.
The Florida Suicide Prevention Coordinating Council’s 2018 Annual Report, released this past January, lists reducing prejudice, stigma, and discrimination associated with suicidal behaviors and mental and substance use disorders as one of its objectives.
“People believe that it’s a choice, that you can pull yourself up, or suck it up. We would never suggest that for someone living with cancer or chronic physical illness,” says Lott. “One in four or five people live with or will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime. We are talking about all of us.”
The National Institute for Mental Health states that suicide doesn’t discriminate and it’s difficult to predict who will act on suicidal thoughts. But for many, the common denominator is a feeling of being alone or isolated. And, they believe they can’t talk about it for fear of being ostracized or misunderstood.
“People misunderstand lonely. It’s possible to be surrounded by people who know and love you, but still feeling alone with your thoughts,” says Lott.
Priorities in the trenches
The Crisis Center of Tampa Bay recently partnered with Tampa advertising agency ChappellRoberts on a suicide educational and awareness campaign called “First to Respond, Last to Ask for Help.”
The campaign targets Tampa Bay first responders, including police, fire, and emergency medical services personnel, and encourages them to call 2-1-1, a 24/7 confidential national suicide prevention hotline. Calls originating in Hillsborough County are directed to the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay.
According to the Journal of Emergency Medical Services, 6 percent of first responders nationwide have attempted suicide; 10 times the national average.
“Suicide is an issue all across society, among youth, college populations, the elderly, first responders and more women than ever,” says Clara Reynolds, president and CEO of the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay.
Like other area mental health experts, Reynolds says that people don’t reach out for help because of the stigma. “It’s not about being strong enough or having enough self-control. It’s not a character defect. It’s a disease of the brain and the hardest thing to do is reach out and get help,” she says.
Suicide among active-duty military and veterans is also a major concern. The Department of Defense and the Veterans Affairs Department are collaborating on a national suicide prevention conference this summer to determine the next best steps to take. More than 300 active-duty members of the military died by suicide in 2018, the highest number since the DOD began collecting data post 9-11 (2001).
“Death by suicide rather than committing suicide is the new term mental health experts are using, just as we are now saying brain health instead of mental health,” says Liz Dimmitt. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention points out that language matters. Committing suicide can imply blame -- or a crime. It also puts the responsibility on the victim. And that hinders people from reaching out for help.
Love IV Lawrence has so far provided grants to several local organizations, including the Clearwater Free Clinic, which will be offering their staff mental health education and training workshops at the end of October.
But “Reeling in Stigma” was the first public event for Love IV Lawrence. The sold-out event included a cocktail party where five mental health-affiliated organizations were invited to deliver a mini-Shark Tank-style pitch about their mission, followed by a series of short documentary films sponsored by Mountainfilm On Tour, based in Telluride, CO.
Among the featured films from Mountainfilm On Tour was “Akuna,” featuring Iraq war veteran Will Robinson, who walked both the Pacific Crest Trail and the Appalachian Trail to overcome depression, PTSD, and substance abuse.
Each of the participating organizations -- Crisis Center of Tampa Bay; Rogers Behavior Health of Tampa; SpeakUp 5K; To Write Love On Her Arms; and Warrior 2 Warrior -- were told in advance that they would receive a $2,000 donation from the foundation.
But the pitches were “so compelling that the foundation decided to increase that donation to $5,000,” said Lieberman.
In addition, individuals attending the event were invited to vote for the organization they felt had the most “heartfelt” pitch, with the winning nonprofit receiving the Waves of Changes $10,000 grand prize. The winner was Melbourne, Fl.-based To Write Love On Her Arms, a nonprofit movement “presenting hope and finding help for people struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury, and suicide.”
“It was very humbling to be involved in the event and to hear about all of the great work these nonprofits are doing,” said Lieberman. “All of the funding they received will benefit programing in the Tampa Bay area.”
What’s next for Love IV Lawrence? “We wanted to create a signature event that would be a draw and would present a very serious topic in a fun and different way,” says Mallory. “We’re also talking about additional programs year-round, including a possible speaker series.”
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