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We need to have more conversations about mental health

Dunckels reflect on loss of daughter to suicide

News Photo by Darby Hinkley Kathleen and Eric Dunckel hold up their “journey journal” adorned with a photo of their late daughter Abigail Dunckel, who died by suicide in December 2019. The Dunckels want to share their story to help others recognize warning signs and encourage conversation to help prevent suicide.

After losing their daughter to suicide, Kathleen and Eric Dunckel are ready to share their story. They hope to help others recognize the warning signs and be there for friends and loved ones who may be struggling with similar issues.

It’s the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Prevention Week. The Dunckels’ daughter Abigail’s birthday would have been last week on May 6, so coming forward now made sense to them. Today is National Suicide Prevention Day, and May is Mental Health Awareness Month.

Abigail struggled with substance abuse and bipolar disorder, the Dunckels said.

“She had more issues than even mental health,” Kathleen Dunckel said of her daughter. “It was substance abuse, bipolar, so she really kind of hit a number of their themes for the week,” she added, referring to SAMHSA’s Prevention Week.

The week started Monday with Preventing Prescription Drug and Opioid Misuse. Tuesday was about Preventing Underage Drinking and Alcohol Misuse, Wednesday was about Preventing Illicit Drug Use and Youth Marijuana Use, Thursday was about Preventing Youth Tobacco Use, including e-cigarettes and vaping, and today is about Preventing Suicide.

Courtesy Photo Abigail Dunckel, who died by suicide at age 26, struggled with mental health issues and substance abuse.

“She passed just before Christmas of 2019,” Kathleen Dunckel recalled, adding that their daughter was 26 when she died.

They are just now ready to talk about it.

“We’ve been through our first anniversaries, and this would have been her second birthday since she passed,” Kathleen Dunckel said. “So we might not have been so good a year ago.”

“Mental health issues ­– and suicide is one of the tough ones to talk about ­– we are happy to be on the side of making that more of an open conversation,” Eric Dunckel said.

He added that he sees society shifting toward more acceptance of mental health issues, but that more conversations are needed to continue in the right direction.

“We need to have it more out in the light,” Eric Dunckel said.

“It’s a disease, not a moral failing,” Kathleen Dunckel added. “It’s a medical condition, not a character flaw.”

Abigail Dunckel had moved out to Portland, Oregon for work, said her parents, who live in Haynes Township in Alcona County.

She was found on Dec. 23, 2019. Her housemates were out of town for the weekend and found her when they returned.

“So she was out across the country,” her mother noted. “So that was difficult, right at Christmas, having her out there and having family here.”

The Dunckels said despite her struggles, their daughter was a bright girl.

Abigail Dunckel graduated from Alcona Community High School in 2011, earned an AA degree in Sign Language Interpretation from Lansing Community College, and a Masters in Library and Information Science from Wayne State University.

The Dunckels said she had been hospitalized for a prior attempt on Nov. 7, 2019.

“It was not a gesture,” her dad said. “It was an attempt.”

He explained that she knew her roommates were supposed to be gone for the weekend, but their plans changed and they found her and were able to get her to the hospital.

“And that was the third time,” Eric Dunckel said. “She goes into the hospital, gets cleared medically, and gets shifted over to the psych ward, but is not cooperative, so they discharge her.”

“Well, they try to hold her, and the court lets her go,” her mom added. “Because she did not want to stay.”

They flew out to be with her at that time.

“We were there for about 10 days once we knew she was getting out of the hospital,” her dad said. “It was crazy because from then on, I don’t think we saw her sober.”

She was into drinking alcohol and vaping THC.

“You know, the vaping of THC, we became aware of this late June the summer before, and we knew that there was drinking and stuff but we just didn’t know the extent,” he said. “The vaping of THC, the strength of it, it’s hallucinogenic.”

“To vape THC is to get high,” Kathleen Dunckel said. “There’s no medical indication for it.”

Abigail had gotten a medical marijuana card while she was living in Lansing prior to moving to Portland.

“She refused any kind of supervised living or halfway house,” she added.

Her dad talked about Abigail’s behavior as a teen.

“She was bright,” Eric Dunckel noted. “She was troubled. She was diagnosed bipolar in high school. There was a suicide attempt in high school. We were getting indications that there was more alcohol use in high school, and we knew when she went away — she went to Michigan on a full ride and just didn’t go to class.”

But then she took up sign language at Lansing Community College.

“She managed,” her mom said. “She built a life and managed.”

Their daughter never was able to keep a job for long.

“She was a deaf aide in one of the Lansing middle schools, the year after she graduated from the interpreter program, but, other than those nine months, she really was never fully employed,” Kathleen Dunckel said. “She had employer difficulties, job-related difficulties, relationship was rocky, wrecked cars — she was a terrible driver — but she was also bright, and loving and kind, and difficult as a child — tantrums and outbursts — she was complicated.”

She noted that when Abigail was 15, she had a “bizarre” accident and fell out a window and broke her back.

“But she just battled her way back from that,” her mom said. “She was amazing … She did not become hooked on painkillers. We were a little bit worried about that, but she didn’t … We just were impressed with the courage.”

Her parents said she did go to counseling when she was younger, and after the first suicide attempt, she got on medication and went to counseling.

“But when they get to that age, you can force them to sit there, but if they don’t talk, if they don’t participate,” there’s not much else you can do, Kathleen Dunckel said. “She took her medication … but really participating in counseling didn’t seem to do her much good.”

The Dunckels want to encourage more conversations about mental health and getting people the resources they need to identify and address suicidal indicators.

“We’ll, for the rest of our lives, look at things … it’s not really guilt, it’s a complex thing that happens,” Eric Dunckel said, when you have a child who dies by suicide. “But, I think, if there was somehow that we would have had the understanding … that mental health was really important … We hope that if anything comes out of this, again, it just moves the conversation.”

He said seeing all the signs of emotional distress and knowing what to do about them is not as easy as fixing a broken arm.

“Abby was a troubled kid in a lot of ways,” her dad recalled. “And we knew that. And it wasn’t all the time — it’s not that black and white. It’s not the arm dangling. It is different than that. Nonetheless, if you see that and feel empowered to act … the parent or the caregiver needs to be able to take action.”

Kathleen Dunckel said teenagers, like adults, have to be willing to engage in counseling. But taking that first step to just ask them what is wrong or if they want to talk could save their life.

“Talking to your kids does work,” Kathleen Dunckel said. “It might not seem like it, to grumpy, sullen teenagers, but parents do have an influence over their kids. You’ve got to say ‘Smoking’s bad. Drinking’s bad.'”

Talk about how they are feeling. Talk about vaping or substance abuse, so they are better prepared to resist it when the temptation arises. Reach out for resources in our community.

“Observe your kids, be involved with them, watch them, and when you see these things, be aware,” Kathleen Dunckel said. “It’s OK to talk to them. It does help.”

She said they may not have been aware of all the resources available to them, but they want others to have that information at their fingertips when they need it.

“You kind of feel paralyzed,” Eric Dunckel said. “It gets to be complex because you just don’t know.”

“But, if it’s an emergency, you go to the emergency room,” his wife noted, whether it be a physical or mental health emergency.

“We need to be able to be more conversant in mental health issues,” Eric Dunckel said.

“Video mental health services are very effective,” Kathleen Dunckel added, noting that during the COVID-19 pandemic that platform has become a popular and safe option.

Watch for the following warning signs of someone who may be suicidal:

≤ Talking about wanting to die or kill oneself.

≤ Looking for a way to kill oneself, such as searching online or buying a gun.

≤ Talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live.

≤ Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain.

≤ Talking about being a burden to others.

≤ Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs.

≤ Acting anxious or agitated; behaving recklessly.

≤ Sleeping too little or too much.

≤ Withdrawing or feeling isolated.

≤ Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge.

≤ Displaying extreme mood swings.

The risk for suicide is greater if a behavior is new or has increased and if it seems related to a painful event, loss, or change.

Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Visit samhsa.gov for more information.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255.

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