- Associated Press - Sunday, February 7, 2016

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - Missouri state Rep. Genise Montecillo said nothing publicly for more than six months about the June day she tried to kill herself.

Montecillo wanted to keep that a secret, like the emotional abuse and neglect she said she suffered as a child and the depression she deals with as a result.

But she stood on the second day of the 2016 legislative session and implored her colleagues to research mental illness, a move she hopes will help others.

“Those of us that suffer with some of these illnesses, we do it in silence because we’re afraid to tell everybody,” the St. Louis Democrat said, her voice projected through a microphone to more than 150 lawmakers, as well as visitors and reporters. “We’re afraid that people will think we’re weak, or we’re not capable of doing our jobs.”

Montecillo said she hopes she can give strength to others to seek help.

“My whole life is about making sure other people and kids don’t go through what I’ve gone through,” Montecillo said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I feel like I have a responsibility to help other people with my story.”

Montecillo is backing proposals in the House and Senate to require school districts to adopt policies on suicide awareness and prevention. The state’s K-12 agency would have to create guidelines for suicide prevention and awareness training for teachers. A House version is up for final committee approval, and the Senate bill passed unanimously out of committee this week.

Another House measure would create a panel of medical school representatives and a mental health official with the authority to do research aimed at lowering the risk of suicide and depression among medical students. It also would create an awareness day on medical students’ mental health. The legislation, which passed the House 153-2 Thursday, now heads to the Senate.

Montecillo cried on the House floor when she last week asked her colleagues to support the measure.

“Any awareness that we can bring, any prevention that we can bring is something we should all be embracing,” Montecillo said before bill sponsor Rep. Keith Frederick, R-Rolla, walked across the floor to stand next to her.

Montecillo said her suicide attempt was rooted in childhood trauma. She said her mother, who died about 11 years ago, emotionally abused her, wouldn’t let her shower for days and sometimes beat her. It was a family secret, Montecillo said, that became her secret.

Years later, she only occasionally alluded to her experiences during committee hearings on bills related to child abuse.

The trauma built up and weighed on Montecillo her entire life, she said. But she didn’t want to talk about it or her subsequent struggle with mental illness.

Montecillo said she felt trapped. Suicide seemed like the only option left.

“I was tired, and I just didn’t have any fight left,” she said.

According to the most recent data available from the Centers for Disease Control, 1,017 people killed themselves in Missouri in 2014. That’s compared to 960 in 2013 and 715 in 2004.

In 2013, the Missouri suicide rate topped the national rate of 13 deaths per 100,000 people, according to a 2015 report from the Missouri Institute of Mental Health. About 16 people died in Missouri per 100,000.

Even after she tried to kill herself, Montecillo said she didn’t want anybody to know. She said if a newspaper had not first reported the attempt, she probably would not have acknowledged it publicly.

“Improving people’s comfort in talking about it and hearing about it,” is one of the biggest steps in suicide-prevention efforts, said Dr. Bart Andrews, the vice president of clinical practice and evaluations at Behavioral Health Response. The St. Louis-based nonprofit provides crisis intervention services.

Andrews said suicidal thoughts are not unusual, suicide is preventable and there are resources available to people thinking about killing themselves. But he said it can be frightening for family and friends, who might try to convince the person that their life is worth living and their problems are not as bad as they might seem.

“Instead we really should say things like, ‘Thank you for telling me. I’m so glad you did. I really care about you. What can I do to help?’” Andrews said.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 800-273-8255.

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