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A Look Into Suicide and Mental Health in Westchester

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Adobe Stock | Stanislaw Mikulski

Two Westchester women share their stories of suicide in the hope of helping others through crippling mental health challenges.

It’s been nearly five years since Joan Huberty of Yonkers lost her 22-year-old son, Michael McGrane, to suicide. Some days, like birthdays and holidays, are still very hard. “He was my sunshine,” Huberty says.

But Huberty wants to talk about her son, not only to honor his memory but also because “if sharing my story helps even one person, it’s worth it.”

Tragically, McGrane’s mental health struggles and his decision to take his life aren’t unique. Suicide is the third-leading cause of death for American youth ages 10 to 19 and the second-leading cause of death for young adults 20 to 34. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicides among individuals 10 to 24 increased nearly 60% between 2007 and 2018.

“Since 2010, the average range of completed suicides in Westchester County is between 65 and 75 individuals,” says Michael Orth, commissioner for the Westchester County Department of Community Mental Health and co-chair of the Westchester County Suicide Prevention Task Force. “In 2020, the rates were higher. We had 78 completed suicides.”

“Suicide most often occurs when stressors and mental health issues converge to create an experience of hopelessness and despair.”
—Commissioner Michael Orth, Westchester County Department of Community Mental Health

Data from the Westchester County Medical Examiner’s office shows that approximately two-thirds of suicides in Westchester (and around the country) were by men more than 55 years old. Among Westchester youth ages 10 to 19, there were four suicides in 2019 and three more in both 2020 and 2021. Among Westchester young adults ages 20 to 29, there were 10 suicides in 2019, 16 in 2020, and eight in 2021. At press time, there were two suicides in each age group this year.

Orth says there is no single cause for suicide.

mental health suicide

Adobe Stock | Stanislaw Mikulski

“Suicide most often occurs when stressors and mental health issues converge to create an experience of hopelessness and despair. Conditions like depression, anxiety, and substance problems, especially when unaddressed, increase risk for suicide,” says Orth. “Something to look out for when concerned that a person may be suicidal is a change in behavior or the presence of entirely new behaviors. This is of the sharpest concern if the new or changed behavior is related to a painful event, loss, or change.”

As far as Huberty could tell, McGrane did not manifest signs of mental illness as a child, and she saw her son thrive during his high school years. “He was a great football player — captain of the Fordham Prep football team, and he had tons of friends,” she says.

McGrane graduated high school in 2013; in August of that year, he left home for college in South Carolina. Soon after he arrived on campus, he experienced a series of disturbing losses. In September, his mother moved from the family home where he grew up; in October, his beloved uncle died; then, McGrane suffered a weightlifting injury and had to undergo surgery. Three days before he returned home for spring break, Huberty was forced to euthanize McGrane’s dog, a pet she had given her son to comfort him following her breast cancer diagnosis, about 12 years earlier. “When he came home for spring break, he was full of depression and anxiety,” says Huberty.

McGrane didn’t return to college after spring break. Instead, he moved home and got a job refurbishing furniture. He seemed to be feeling better. He kept that job for a year and a half.

“There’s help out there for parents and children, but you have to be open to it.”
—Joan Huberty

McGrane decided to apply to Fordham University, where his mother worked as administrator.

“But after attending just two or three classes, he quit. He said he couldn’t do the work,” says Huberty. His mental health worsened. “I saw the struggle. It was heart-wrenching to watch.”

Over the next two years, McGrane continued to show signs of anxiety and depression, and his behavior became increasingly bizarre. There were run-ins with the police and two psychiatric hospitalizations, yet his diagnosis remained unclear. After his second hospitalization, McGrane attended an outpatient program in Yonkers called OnTrackNY, which helps adolescents and young adults experiencing psychosis for the first time.

At OnTrackNY, McGrane was prescribed medication to help with his psychiatric symptoms, and he struggled with taking it. There were two additional hospitalizations while McGrane was a patient at OnTrackNY.

“On Thanksgiving 2017, I could see the depression,” says Huberty. On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, she received a phone call telling her that McGrane had taken his life.

“That first year was a blur. I just cried and cried. I didn’t know what was harder, seeing Michael living [in such pain] or Michael dying. But I had overwhelming support. Faith got me through.”

Huberty began therapy, which gradually helped her to accept the loss, she says. She also attended various support groups.

“A friend told me about NAMI [National Alliance for Mental Illness], and I started going to a parents’ group there. OnTrack had a family group too. I also went to a retreat through the Emmaus Ministry for Grieving Parents seven weeks after Michael died. It was the most healing, spiritual experience. It was so helpful to know I was not alone, that others suffer too.”

Huberty’s recovery also involved learning about the five stages of grief (as described by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross): denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. There were also many self-help books. She journaled, practiced meditation and mindfulness, and “learned to stay away from negative people.”

Huberty stresses that “there’s help out there for parents and children, but you have to be open to it.”

White Plains resident Eliza Rauchwerger, 32, had her first experience with therapy at age 6, following her parents’ divorce.

“During middle school, I kind of just withdrew into myself,” Rauchwerger recalls. “I used to have this huge, bubbly, out-of-this-world personality. But [in middle school], I just crawled inside and hid. I was bullied a lot during middle school — all three years. I had an eating disorder; I had body dysmorphia; and I was harming myself [by cutting]. I just wanted to be invisible.”

Hoping she’d find greater acceptance, Rauchwerger decided to attend a private high school. But she found that it was just like her previous school.

After an especially difficult day in ninth grade, Rauchwerger came home and told her mother, “‘I just don’t feel safe anywhere.’ I’d taken a few more Tylenol than you’re supposed to. So, my mother took me to my therapist. I told my therapist, ‘I’m done with this. I don’t want to be here anymore.’ My therapist said, ‘I have to hospitalize you.’”

After being discharged, Rauchwerger attended another private school, where she wasn’t bullied and received a great deal of support. She remained in therapy and was able to graduate.

The following year, Rauchwerger attended a precollege program in Connecticut. While she was there, she attempted suicide again and was rehospitalized.

“I came home, and we immediately went to a doctor,” says Rauchwerger. “They diagnosed me with borderline personality disorder, which we had never heard of. My mom did her homework, and she found out about dialectical behavioral therapy.”

Based on cognitive behavioral therapy, DBT is an evidence-based treatment proven to help individuals with borderline personality, eating disorders, substance use disorder, and suicidality. The treatment is designed to help individuals regulate their emotions and practice the skills they need to realize their potential.

suicide

By Rachael Gorrie

Rauchwerger believes that DBT saved her life. “You learn different life skills that a lot of people just think of as common sense,” says Rauchwerger. “But my brain can’t see the middle ground of life, that gray area. So, it was really helpful to be able to stop myself and say, Wait a minute: There’s a gray area here. I just have to find it.”

At the beginning of the pandemic, Rauchwerger experienced multiple stressors, and “I threw all my DBT skills out the window,” she says. During this time, she was rushed to the emergency room and was placed in a remote-outpatient program, which she participated in over Zoom, from her mother’s house. Upon discharge from the program, Rauchwerger returned to her DBT skills regimen and has remained stable ever since.

In August, Rauchwerger graduated from a diagnostic medical sonography program. She plans to become an ultrasound technician.

Rauchwerger says she has always wanted to help people. In her new career, she will be doing that. She also helps others by volunteering as a young adult presenter for NAMI’s End the Silence Program, which is designed to raise awareness and decrease the stigma that surrounds mental illness. As part of the program, Rauchwerger tells her story of illness and recovery, and answers questions about her mental health journey.

“Work your therapy. I know it’s hard, and you may not want to do it, but it’s worth every ounce of energy that you put into it.”
— Eliza Rauchwerger

“It’s really been one of the best things about coming into this new part of my life,” she says. “It definitely helped bring a lot of joy back into my life when I was ready for it.”

Recently, Rauchwerger has become a bit of a social media phenomenon. She began by posting funny videos of herself lip-synching and dancing, but eventually she posted a live video in which she described an incident of being bullied at college. The video attracted lots of attention, and Rauchwerger now has followers who reach out to her with questions about mental health.

She advises others with mental health challenges to “work your program. Work your therapy. I know it’s hard, and you may not want to do it, but it’s worth every ounce of energy that you put into it. And if your family is offering support, lean on it. It gets better,” she promises.

Despite the mental health crisis, there are county experts who remain optimistic about the future.

“Most suicides are preventable,” says Orth. “We can all help prevent tragedies in our communities by learning to recognize and take seriously the signs of depression and emotional pain. It is important that we reach out to family members, friends, neighbors, and colleagues, and open the door for conversation.”

Facts and Figures*

Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for young adults 20–29 and the third-leading cause of death for children and teens 10–19.

Having an undiagnosed or untreated mental illness is the No. 1 cause of suicide.

More women than men attempt suicide, but men are four times more likely to die by suicide.

LGTBQ youth are four times more likely to seriously consider suicide, plan for suicide, and attempt suicide versus their peers (Trevor Project).

The majority of completed suicides involve the use of a firearm.

Most suicides are preventable with appropriate treatment, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT).

The best way to find out if someone is suicidal is by asking them. MHA offers suggestions on how to start a conversation about suicide at mhawestchester.org.

NAMI offers free support groups for individuals with mental illness and their friends and families, as well as educational presentations about mental illness for community groups, schools, colleges, and businesses

MHA’s ASIST and safeTALK programs teach professionals and nonprofessionals how they can help to prevent suicides.

*Unless otherwise stated, these facts/figures are adapted from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and the Mental Health Association (MHA).

Resources

We are fortunate to have many organizations — a number based in the county — working individually and collaboratively to provide mental health and crisis intervention services, education, and suicide prevention. Here are just some that are available.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
988 (new number as of July 16, 2022)

Mental Health Association Westchester
914.266.2922; mhawestchester.org

National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Westchester
914.592.5458; namiwestchester.org

Department of Community Mental Health, Westchester
914.995.5220; mentalhealth.westchestergov.com

Putnam|Northern Westchester BOCES Guidance & Child Study Center
pnwboces.org

Westchester Crisis & Prevention & Response Team
914.925.5959

JCK Foundation
jckfoundation.org

Westchester Jewish Community Services
914.761.0600; wjcs.com

OnTrackNY
914.610.5411; ontrackny.org
networktherapy.com/directory/find_therapist.asp

Soulshop
214.559.4646; soulshopmovement.org

American Society for Suicide Prevention Hudson Valley/Westchester
914.610.9156; afsp.org/chapter/hudson-valley-westchester

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