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Making a Difference: New suicide prevention task force spreading awareness

Parents who lost son to suicide are spreading awareness through a new suicide prevention task force in Cambria County. (WJAC)

CAMBRIA COUNTY, Pa. (WJAC) - Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the united states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In this week's making a difference, a couple from the town of Davidsville in Somerset County lost their son to suicide seven years ago and their honoring his life by trying to change that statistic through a new task force.

“Big burly guy, 5'11”, had multiple tattoos, greatest hugs you could ever imagine,” Byron Smith said. “He always had a smile.”

Byron and Donna Smith love talking about their son Devin. They said he had a beautiful smile and always helped other people.

"He was a good kid but he had his struggles," Byron said.

Their lives changed forever on January 23rd, 2012, when Devin took his own life at 32-years old after he dealt with alcohol and drug addiction.

“Byron got to the point where depression it was just overwhelming. He didn't want to die, he wanted to stop the pain,” Byron said.

Through the heartbreak, Devin’s parents are raising awareness that there is one death by suicide in the U.S. every 12 minutes and there are 123 suicide deaths each day in the country, according to the CDC.

They're involved with the Yellow Ribbon Suicide Prevention Program, where they reach students in schools. Devin talks to students about Devin and how suicide affects many lives.

They also co-chair the new Cambria County Suicide Prevention Task Force that was formed in February 2018.

“It doesn't go away, the pain doesn't go away, it becomes normalized,” Donna said. “You have to get through the other side and you have to make the choice. Are you going to sit and absorb it or are you going to get out and change something? We've chosen to change."

The task force made up of 25 different agencies, including organizations, businesses and healthcare providers, educates the community to help prevent suicide, supports those affected, and provides resources for people to turn to.

Katrina Perkosky is the marketing chair for the task force. She lost her brother to suicide. She hopes they can help people heal.

"It gets better. When you're in that situation, It's dark, it's difficult and it's hard to look ahead because the present is so heavy but if you ask for help and utilize the resources that are in our community, healing is possible, progress is possible and really can get better,” Perkosky said.

Byron said they also want to eliminate the stigma surrounding suicide.

“There's a lot of shame that happens from families who are impacted because it's not easy kind of thing. We need to get rid of that. We need to have people openly talk about it and realize it's so important, we need to make a change," Byron said.

The Smiths and Perkosky said that multiple reports show suicide deaths have spiked throughout the nation and is actually contributing to a decline in life expectancy in the U.S.

But the Cambria County Coroner's Office’s numbers show there has been a decline in the county, dropping from 27 suicides in 2017 to 15 in 2018.

The task force holds a fundraising walk called ‘Out of the Darkness’ and they want to start a support group for those who have lost loved ones to suicide.

And on Thursday January 31st, free suicide prevention training will be held in Johnstown at the Commerce Center.

“People say suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem so this type of training helps you recognize that and get a person a permanent solution for their pain so that suicide is not even on the table anymore for them,” Perkosky said.

Meanwhile, Byron and Donna will continue sharing stories about Devin and keep little reminders close by, in hopes of saving lives.

"You’re not alone, there are other people struggling with exactly same thing. People care and there are resources out there,” Byron said. "As bad as you're dealing with it, there's someone out there that will help you. You just need to be able to ask for help."

Magellan Healthcare is holding the suicide prevention training on January 31st. It will be held at the Commerce Center in the west end section of Johnstown.

One session will be held from 9 a.m. to noon and the second from 1 to 4 p.m. It's open to any community member 15 years of age and older.

the sessions are free but you must pre-register by calling magellan healthcare at 814-961-0700 or emailing cmstandley@magellanhealth.com

The task force has a fund through the community foundation for the Alleghenies, you can donate through the task force's Facebook page.

If you or someone you love are in need of immediate help, call the Cambria County Crisis line at 1-877-268-9463 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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