Before being diagnosed with bipolar disorder in high school, Stephen Pihl struggled to make friends and control his emotions.
Years ago, on a “really bad day” dealing with his issues, he decided he didn’t want to be here anymore. He planned to kill himself after school.
“I was in a really dark place,” Pihl said of sharing this story via a YouTube video with Greenville-based mental health advocate Dennis Gillan about “introducing mental health through storytelling.”
But, as he was leaving school that day, a student approached Pihl and complimented him on his shoes.
This single, brief statement changed his way of thinking and his course of action.
He said that’s a reason he’s alive today.
Today, Pihl and Gillan relay the impact that a compliment can have through a children’s book, “Pretty shoes! A little compliment can go a long way!” based on Pihl’s experience.
“By writing this children’s book, I want to show how easy it is to help others and how important it can be in someone’s life,” Pihl said in an emailed statement. .
Pihl is now a graduate of the University of Delaware with degrees in biology and neuroscience. He plans to pursue a career in mental health research.
The idea for the book came from Gillan, an accomplished suicide prevention speaker who has dedicated his life to mental health advocacy.
This week, September 4-10, is recognized as National Suicide Prevention Week by advocates across the country.
Greenville man lost 2 brothers to suicides 11 years apart
Gillan and Pihl might not have met if they hadn’t found themselves on the same stage in 2018, sharing their personal journeys involving suicide.
Gillan’s started in 1983 when her older brother, Mark, committed suicide. Gillan, originally from Brooklyn, New York, was then a student at West Virginia University.
“I barely got out of school,” he said. “I didn’t take it so well.”
He tried to escape by partying and drinking. Then, 11 years later, in 1994, her younger brother, Matthew, who had witnessed her wedding, committed suicide.
Gillan said he sobered up because he hit rock bottom.
“I was pretty depressed,” he said. “Losing two brothers to suicide is awful.”
Dennis Gillan’s Suicide Prevention Mission Launched at UofSC
Gillan was living in Carlisle, Pennsylvania at the time of Matthew’s death.
He moved to Illinois, where he started working for Suicide Prevention Lifeline. It gave her the opportunity to give back without having to tell her story.
“I was anonymous,” he said. “I wasn’t ready to tell my story and tell the world about my brothers, and it was a very rewarding job.”
In 2004 he moved to Columbia, South Carolina for a new management role.
“I was probably the worst manager on the planet because my head wasn’t right,” he said.
He first spoke publicly about his brothers and suicide prevention in 2011, at the University of South Carolina, in front of a group of psychology interns.
“They were featuring this guy who lost two brothers to suicide, and I was sitting there going, ‘Wow, that poor guy. I had never heard it from the outside,” Gillan said. “Then they say, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Dennis Gillan.’ I’m like, Shit, that’s me. I started crying.”
“I cried the whole hour,” he said. “It was horrible.”
The next time he spoke was at Charleston College. He only cried half the time.
And since then, he talks about his personal experience.
“I’m not a trained psychologist. I’m not a psychiatrist,” he said. “I’m more like a victim impact statement. I try to go through risk factors, warning signs and try to prevent future events knowing what my family has been through twice. .”
Dennis Gillan sold pharmaceuticals. Now he sells hope
Gillan recalls a moment when the thought of suicide came to mind.
“I felt very vulnerable after Matthew died because I was the last boy. I never really had suicidal thoughts. I dealt with sadness, depression, all that stuff,” did he declare. “I’ve lived a pretty good life, believe it or not, except for those two very dark days.”
Then her 25-year marriage exploded. The night he learned of the divorce was the only time the thought of suicide crept into his head.
He quickly chased him away, he said.
“I thought of my two boys. My parents were both alive at the time, and it would have gutted them,” he said. “So when he appeared, I quickly pushed him away. But it just showed me that I’m human and I’m vulnerable like everyone else. I’m not immune to it.”
For a time, Gillan handled speaking engagements at night while pursuing her sales career during the day. But he got to the point where it became clear that something had to give.
He quit his job in sales and devoted himself full-time to suicide prevention and mental health advocacy.
“I just felt pressured to do more of this work. It’s more satisfying,” Gillan said. “I was always selling something. Now I can sell hope, and it’s a much cooler product.”
Gillan is the Executive Director and Founder of the Half a Sorrow Foundation, whose mission is “to improve the mental health of individuals and organizations by fostering real conversations.”
He met Pihl at the University of Delaware at a fundraiser in honor of a young man who had died by suicide. Gillan was the speaker for the event and had planned to incorporate students into his speech.
Stephen Pihl represents a victory in suicide prevention
Pihl was among the students involved in the fundraiser. He was also one of three people Gillan called out on stage.
Gillan didn’t know what Pihl had planned to say. Pihl didn’t have a pre-written speech. He told Gillan he was going to “pilot it”.
“I’m like, ‘You’re not piloting anything. It’s a discussion about mental health. We don’t run this,'” Gillan said.
Part of what Pihl ultimately shared was the story that became “Nice Shoes.” The crowd went wild.
What stuck with Gillan about this was that Pihl had thought about suicide but didn’t act on it. It represented a victory.
“We won somebody,” Gillan said. “It’s been over a dozen years, and he’s still with us.”
Gillan couldn’t get Pihl’s story out of his head.
In 2021 he contacted him and asked if they could write a children’s book based on Pihl’s story.
“He says, ‘Yes sir, let’s do it,'” Gillan said.
“Nice Shoes” is available on Amazon. It doesn’t explicitly mention suicide because it’s a children’s book, Gillan said. The character in the book just fears that all his days will be sad.
“That’s all we’re going for,” Gillan said.
Her hope for children who read “Nice Shoes” is that they recognize that there will be bad days but not every day will be bad. There is hope.
It’s a message that can be extended to adults, Gillan said.
“You never know what people are going through,” he said. “Give them grace. Kindness always wins.”
In 2020, suicide was the 12th leading cause of death in the United States, killing more than 45,900, according to the National Institute on Mental Health.
South Carolina’s suicide death rate in 2020 was 16.3%, with 868 deaths, compared to 16.2% with 852 deaths in 2019, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
If you or someone you know is in an emotional crisis, in emotional distress or considering suicide, call or text 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline on 988 or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HELLO to 741741.