Barb Bigalke is the executive director of the Center for Suicide Awareness.Faye Burg photo
Barb Bigalke is the executive director of the Center for Suicide Awareness.
Faye Burg photo
An area organization strives to offer suicide support groups, presentations to educate about the warning signs and a strong hope to create a stronger community that helps people in need and supports those in grief.
Created in 2012 by Barb Bigalke, the Center for Suicide Awareness offers comprehensive suicide prevention training programs along with educational and clinical materials for the general public, professionals and institutions.
Bigalke serves as executive director of the Center for Suicide Awareness and travels the state and country to present educational seminars and presentations to schools, businesses, groups, elderly caregivers, law enforcement, and more along with coordinating area support groups.
"Right now there are seven different suicide support groups and two trained facilitators for each group," Bigalke said.
During her many years working as a Department of Justice crisis responder, Bigalke noticed a need for survivor support. "There is not a lot of support," Bigalke said. "People didn't know what to say."

High suicide rate
"We have a high suicide rate," Bigalke said. "I am a big believer that if you ignore it, how is it going to get better? We need to talk about it, do something about it, and do programs about it which is the step to bringing about change."
Bigalke, who also serves as chairwoman of the Calumet County Prevent Suicide Coalition, believes suicide has no boundaries and encourages communication. "We have to work together and we have to talk about it," Bigalke added. "Suicide affects so many."
Working with law enforcement for years, Bigalke said she was there when officers knocked on someone's door to notify them that a loved one had passed away. "You can see how traumatic it is when the death is from a car accident and you see the people support the family, but when the loved one dies by suicide, there are no answers. We can somewhat put a puzzle together, but ultimately we don't know. That's what is hard. If it was an icy road or a disease, we can address that, if its suicide, we can't tell the family why."
"There's really not a lot of support out there and people don't know what to say," Bigalke explained. "We do a lot of education on what to say to someone whose loved one dies of suicide. We have to get over how they died. This is a unique grief and a unique subject. The more I am in this field, the more I realize the stigma of the word suicide. We have to get more comfortable and stop whispering. You might be uncomfortable but let's work together and figure out prevention and protective factors."
The origins of the Center for Suicide Prevention began with a charity walk. "We had done the walk for suicide awareness in 2010," Bigalke explained. "The walk was an effort to bring awareness to a subject that people are not always comfortable talking about. I facilitate all the support groups in the area who have lost someone from suicide and the center really grew from there."
A huge success in its first year, the suicide walk which is held each September attracted 500 participants much to Bigalke's surprise. "Last year we had 1,900 people participate," Bigalke said. "What's so great about it is that we're bringing awareness that we do have a high suicide rate, we do need to do something about it, and we do need to do better. With awareness we can bring about change and work together to do so."

Many people impacted
"Look at all of these people that have somehow been impacted by suicide," Bigalke said of the walk. "Lives were touched whether it is a family member, a coworker, a teammate, or a friend of a friend."
Bigalke credits the city of Kaukauna for their huge support of the walk. "We had so many people they actually had to close part of STH 55 down," Bigalke added.
With a loaning library and a huge array of educational materials available, Bigalke offers her presentations and services free of charge. School districts recently utilizing the programs offered include Manawa, New London, Waupaca, Hilbert and Kaukauna.
"Kids have so much pressure today," Bigalke said. "We come in and really talk to kids and tell them that it's OK to ask for help and how you cope with drama, how do you cope with life, how do you cope with a breakup. Sometimes adults forget how hard it is for kids."
"We do a lot of school presentations talking about how even with the worst thing going on in your life, suicide is not an option," Bigalke said. "It can't be. We are going to figure this out together. People do care. We just have to get to a better point where people ask for help and the community recognizing that this person might be going through a lot and seeing if they can be of assistance to them."

Seeing the warning signs
"You don't have to be a counselor to see basic warning signs like someone acting differently. After a suicide I hear people say they could of, should of, and would have noticed something in that person's behavior if they had it to do over again. Let's get that education out there. Notice those warning signs and behavior clues. Be able to say someone is struggling and how I can help," Bigalke said.
Sessions can be tailored for kids in a district or organization and also for adults. "Youth is one thing, but you have to teach everybody," Bigalke explained. "Everybody from the crossing guards to principals to teachers, coaches, and kitchen staff as those are some of the people that are going to catch things. Kudos to Hilbert and the schools of Calumet County to recognize the kids need it and the adults need it too. We can't assume everyone knows." Bigalke said she is grateful for the schools' utilization of the center's services as it helps bring awareness to rural areas as well.
In an effort to reach even more people, the center held a motorcycle ride out of Menasha in October. "The Ride for Suicide Awareness attracted 88 bikes for its first year," Bigalke said. "It was a beautiful autumn day to ride around Lake Winnebago."
Bigalke, also co-chairwoman of the Fox Valley Grief Network, is assisted at the center by a board consisting of community members who are in law enforcement, education, alcohol and drug counseling, funeral and fire and rescue. "It's very diverse," Bigalke said. "We have different components of people who have firsthand knowledge of suicide. Law enforcement is the first responder; they can tell us what is needed. Many officers have died by suicide as well."
According to Bigalke, the center has a core group of about 20 volunteers to help with the support groups. Each group has two trained facilitators to help those in attendance. "The basis of the center is we need to do better supporting. Our support groups are constantly growing."
"We will go to a school, a workplace, an organization," Bigalke said. "We talk about this is what happens after a suicide. So many survivors will say that people don't want to hear their stories because it is suicide. If they died of cancer, you are supported, but some say because of how their loved ones died, by suicide, some people have lost friends."

The stigma of suicide
Most challenging for Bigalke is the stigma of suicide. "People are fearful of it and fear has a tendency to keep people away," Bigalke said. "If we don't talk about it it won't happen. But let's talk about it. Education and awareness are great things for prevention."
By January, Bigalke is hoping to have a texting project up and running where anyone will be able to text a crisis center. According to Bigalke, the center will be the first in Wisconsin to offer this unique service.
"Kids talk in texting, they are utilizing their mode. They can text in a keyword and that will connect them to our trained crisis responders," Bigalke said.
Bigalke explained why the texting crisis center could be vitally important to area youths. "Some won't call, but they would text," Bigalke said. "There is still a need for a crisis line, but we are seeing a different generation out there."
Bigalke said the first text crisis center that opened received 500 texts the first day. "Help is only a button away," Bigalke said.

Reaching out to someone
"The ability to reach out to somebody at their level is what suicide prevention is and saying those kind words," Bigalke added. "It's the right person at the right time at the right place with the right words. We're here and we care."
Since opening in August 2012, the center has given direct presentations to over 650 youths and averages 12 presentations per month. "It's amazing how one suicide affects so many. It affects communities," Bigalke said. "We have to talk about it."
Bigalke said she finds many rewards in her chosen career. "I love what I do, because I love when I go to a school and listen to kids and then I will have a counselor call me a week later and tell me that seven kids came in and said Miss Barb said it's OK to ask for help. They know that there's somebody in their school that's safe."
"Never minimize how you impact everybody," Bigalke said. "You could be that supportive person to your coworker that they would come and say, 'You know, I am really struggling.' They might need that positive person to say, 'What can I do and I am here.'"
"That's how you make a difference," Bigalke added. "When you see 1,900 people walk on the road, you know you've made a difference."
More information on the Center for Suicide Awareness can be found at http://suicidepreventionandresourcecenter.org/ or by e-mailing Bigalke at barb@centerforsuicideawareness.org.

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