Briana Browne, center, was the keynote speaker during Saturday night’s Team Forever Young Celebration Gala. Brown told attendees about her suicide attempt off the Natchez Trace Bridge in Tennessee in 2016. With her, from left, is her mother Peggy Browne and Team Forever Young Captain Nancy Cook. AARON CURTIS/LOWELL SUN
Suicide prevention gala shares powerful stories
By: Aaron Curtis
To date, there have been 32 people who have ended their lives by jumping off the 155-foot tall Natchez Trace Bridge in Franklin, Tenn.
The frequency of suicides at the location led to the placement of a sign near the bridge railing that displays a suicide-prevention hotline number.
Briana Browne’s car was found by her mother parked near that sign on May 13, 2016. The then-21-year-old parked moments before she jumped off the towering bridge in an attempt to end her life.
“No one has ever survived a jump off that bridge. But I did,” Browne told a crowd of around 350 people inside the UMass Lowell Inn and Conference Center on Saturday night.
Browne, a resident of Roswell, Ga., told her story as the keynote speaker during Saturday’s Team Forever Young Celebration Gala. Team Forever Young, partnering with See A New Sun Foundation, used the gala — the second year of the event — to raise money for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
During Browne’s powerful address, which prompted a standing ovation, she explained her decision to end her life came after growing pressure, anxiety and depression during her time in college. An avid cellist, Browne said her goal since childhood had been to become a music therapist. However, those dreams were destroyed when a college adviser told her she was “simply not good enough” to pursue that career field.
“I felt so hopeless and lonely, that I thought it would be better to go away than to have my friends and family disappointed in me,” Browne said.
Browne’s plummet from the bridge broke most of her upper body, including her pelvis, both shoulders and all but one of her vertebrae. She suffered from internal bleeding, a brain bleed on her brain stem and a traumatic brain injury.
“I woke up in the hospital and the first thing I said to my parents was, ‘You must hate me now,’” Browne said. “But they didn’t hate me. They weren’t even disappointed in me. They loved me unconditionally and were so happy I survived.”
Browne’s experience was followed by therapy, but her recovery was quick considering the extent of her injuries. She now works full time for a nonprofit that serves adults with developmental disabilities. She plays cello in a local community orchestra and even finds time for aerial yoga — which combines traditional yoga with the use of a hammock.
“The miracle of surviving the jump is eclipsed by the miracle of feeling whole and happy again,” she told the crowd Saturday night.
Browne concluded her address by asking those struggling with thoughts of suicide to reach out for help, as “there is hope.”
“Things can and will get better,” she said. “People care about you and I care about you. People love you. Life isn’t easy, but it’s worth being there to find out.”
Browne’s tragedy-turned-miracle was one of the many stories shared Saturday night. Among them was Chelmsford resident Brittany Watson, who lost her 22-year-old brother, Philip Steinman, to suicide in 2012.
“He was the class clown,” Watson said. “He was very funny and always doing what he could to make other people laugh. Very goofy. He was never angry, he was never sad. He was the best secret keeper, he was kind.”
Steinman’s family had no idea he was dealing with any inner turmoil. He hid it so well, Watson said.
One day she came home to find several members of her family standing together.
“Then my mom turned to me and said, ‘Philip committed suicide,’” Watson recalled. “He’s gone.
“It was like nothing I’ve ever experienced,” she added. “My best friend was gone in the blink of an eye. Ten seconds ago I was planning on coming home and asking him to do something with me, and now I don’t have the chance to ever talk to him again.”
Watson joined the Westford-based Team Forever Young as a means to help prevent those from experiencing what she and her family have endured. She encourages others to always check in on their loved ones.
“Even when they seem happy,” Watson said. “Even when they seem OK. Just take the time to stop by, and sit down with them and say, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’ Just check in and make sure you’re present in the moment and see any warning signs.”
Watson showed an image of her brother’s smiling face. His image was one of nearly 40 photos of people lined along a table at the conference center. They were all images of people — connected by family or friends — who committed suicide in a little more than a decade.
“All this happened in 11 years,” said Nancy Cook, captain of Team Forever Young, pointing to the images.
Cook started Team Forever Young in honor of her friend Billy Duggan, a Westford cop who ended his life. She pointed out a picture of Duggan, and mentions the smile spread across his face. Most the images on the shelf had similar images of glowing smiles.
“Behind those beautiful smiles, there’s a lot of torment,” Cook said. “That’s why we need to make it known that there’s help out there.”
Last year’s gala — the first year of the event — raised $42,000 for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention according to Cook. Since Team Forever Young’s official launch 12 years ago, it has raised in excess of $600,000 for the organization.
As of Sunday afternoon’s count, the funds raised by Saturday night’s gala was in excess of $44,000, Cook said.
U.S. Rep. Lori Trahan also spoke during the event, sharing stats released by the Center for Disease Control showing the number of lives lost to suicide increased over 35 percent in Massachusetts from 1999 to 2016.
“And it’s not just here in the commonwealth,” Trahan said. “Across the U.S., we’ve seen a sharp rise in suicide deaths. But stats alone don’t do it justice. It’s in the names, the faces, the stories behind the lives lost that provide us with the inspiration to do more.”
Robert Gebbia, CEO American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, also mentioned statistics recently released by the CDC that state the number of suicides in the U.S. was 48,344 in 2018, an increase from 47,173 the previous year.
“That’s a statistic, but … these are people,” Gebbia said. “Each person had a story, a family and friends. People who miss them. We have to do better.”
Gebbia thanked the crowd and Team Forever Young for its support of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, noting the funding raised will be used to invest in suicide research, education and advocacy.
“We’ve set a goal to reduce the suicide rate in the U.S. 20 percent by the year 2025, and because of what you’re doing, we will get there,” he told the crowd. “Together we will do this.”