ELMIRA, N.Y. (WENY) -- A new survey published by Gallup revealed an alarming rise in depression among Americans.

According to the survey, 29% of adults said they have been diagnosed with depression at some point in their lives. Another 17.8% are depressed or are receiving treatment for depression. That's an increase of 19.6% since Gallup started polling the topic in 2015.

Many health experts attribute the increase to the growing rates of mental health awareness, which lead to higher rates of diagnoses.

"We're in an era where we're increasingly aware of the options for people to be well," said David Putney, Executive Director of the Elmira Psychiatric Center. "The former stigma saying, ‘Well, you're mentally ill...’ is gradually being peeled away. We have an option for people to think about, ‘How are you doing? How's life?’”

Due to his experiences at the center, Putney was not surprised at the growing number of Americans struggling, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Think about the COVID ordeal that we've all been through for three-plus years,” he said. “It's taken a toll on people. When you take away the social connection that people…had in the workplace, it's going to have an effect.”

For some, it does not stop at depression, however. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports self-harm and suicide rates nearly returned to their peak in 2021 after two years of declines. That is a statistic one Elmira mother knows all too well.

“I got a phone call that they had found him, and the rest of the month of March is like a blank, a blur,” said Deb Maxwell, who lost her son David “Bubbie” Shugart to suicide on March 5, 2014. “I really, truly, don't remember a whole lot.”

Despite saying he had become more withdrawn towards the end of his life, Maxwell said David he had an outreach in Elmira that touched everybody.

“He had a light that just...[well,] it was always all about everybody else,” she said. “Special, special man. Special man.”

Maxwell is not the only one to experience the loss of a loved one to suicide. In February 2021, the National Alliance on Mental Illness reported more than 1,723 New Yorkers committed suicide within the year, while 558,000 adults reported thoughts of it. In Pennsylvania, 2,014 people took their own lives and 416,000 considered it.

“The numbers are only getting higher and higher...in my opinion, due to the fact that mental help is, one: very difficult to receive...and two. I think that there's an awful lot of, especially men who do not reach out for help because they're raised with the stigma over them. You're a man, you're strong. You don't ask for help. You do it yourself, and it can't be that way.

Nearly a decade after her son’s passing, Maxwell is now helping other suicide survivors through ‘Smile Through the Storms,’ a suicide grief support group she created soon after Shugart died.

"I had to go through and turn the energy up and around,” she said. “I couldn't sit back and wallow, which would've been very easy to do...There was nothing around here for just suicide survivors. So, I had it in my mind, ‘If you can't find it, then you make one.’”

In addition to holding bi-monthly support meetings for the group, Maxwell wanted to find a way to help suicide survivors process their grief…and cement the memories of all the angels gone too soon. In December 2021, Smile Through the Storms planted a tree in their honor.

“We needed to have a place of happy memories where survivors can come and talk to their angels, and share special moments,” she said. “Come anytime and leave things for your angels. That warms my heart when I come over and see that people have been here and have done that.”

As a tribute for Shugart himself, Maxwell built and dedicated a bench in his memory, completed with a suicide survivor heart ribbon and his daughter's handprints cemented in the ground.

Both are located at Eldridge Park in Elmira, a place that holds a special meaning for Maxwell’s entire family and fills them with the promise of hope.

"Eldridge Park was the first place that my father brought my mother to for their first state, which just warms my heart,” said Maxwell. “Then, with myself, I was a single parent, so I would bring my children over and do the picnics and do the fishing. Then, when Dave had his family, he too would bring his children over. [They would] do the picnics and the fishing, hence why I picked Eldridge for the special spot to have his bench. [I can] come here and sit and talk to him.”

As she continues to keep Shugart’s memory alive, Maxwell has one message for parents and friends of anyone struggling with mental illness.

"Get them help,” she said. “Let them know that you're there for them. Let them know it's okay to get help for anybody.”

More information about “Smile Through the Storms” can be found on its website or Facebook page. Other support groups and treatment centers include the Elmira Psychiatric Center, the Mental Health Association of the Southern Tier and Northern Tier Counseling.

Those who need immediate service can call the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988. For a more local approach, anyone seeking help and support in the Southern Tier can call the following hotlines based on their county:

  • Schuyler County Health Services: (607) 535-8282 / after hours (607) 737-5369
  • Chemung County Crisis Service: (607) 442-6900
  • Steuben County Suicide Prevention and Crisis Service: (607) 272-1616
  • Steuben County Community Mental Health: after hours (607) 937-7800
  • Suicide Prevention & Crisis Service of Tompkins County (607) 272-1616

Those in Bradford and Tioga Counties of Pennsylvania can call the Concern Counseling Hotline at 1 (877) 724-7142. It is available 24/7.

Suicide prevention training sessions throughout the Twin Tiers can also be found here