Alicia Amsler knows far more about mental illness and depression than she ever thought she would need to know. She knows the statistics like the back of her hand, but the real gem in a conversation with her is her passion for helping people who have thoughts about suicide.
In 2012, Amsler, owner of Alicia’s Salon and Day Spa at 6241 Centralia Road in the Chesterfield Meadows Shopping Center, lost one of her employees to suicide. A year later she lost a dear friend to suicide. At the time she wasn’t as prepared to recognize the signs or know how to reach out effectively to prevent the outcome. Today, she is a leader, teacher and advocate for those who are struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts.
Amsler’s mother, Janice Hollis, went into a deep depression after heart surgery. Those dark days lasted almost five years before she recovered.
“Going through those tough times with my mom gave me a better understanding of the illness,” Amsler said. It also gave her a vision for the Runway 2 Life Fashion Show, a fundraising event that promotes mental health and suicide awareness.
“I’m a big visionary and believer in God,” she said. “I walk in obedience, and He brought this to me.” She saw the show in her mind before it came to fruition. Even the name came to her in her vision. She immediately bought the domain name and called her friends. They quickly brought the vision to life.
It was a perfect fit with her 19 years of salon and fashion experience. In addition to running her salon, she has been the hair director for RVA Fashion Week multiple times. The first Runway 2 Life Fashion Show was held in 2017 at the Short Pump Hilton, the same year it achieved non-profit status. The show had 300 volunteers and over 30 models.
“Thirteen lives were saved that year,” Amsler said. “Now there are hundreds. We put resources in front of them to get help.”
We put resources in front of them to get help.”
The Runway 2 Life website documents the statistics. One in five people will experience depression at some point in their lives. Ninety percent of people who die by suicide have an underlying and treatable mental illness. Every 13 minutes, someone dies by suicide.
Amsler, a Chesterfield resident, gives everyone the same advice. When you see someone struggling, don’t walk away; start the conversation by saying “tell me more.”
She believes stylists have a unique opportunity with their clients. It’s an opportunity that builds friendship over the course of several hours of cutting, blow drying and styling. That time together often ultimately leads to intimate conversation, including personal highs and lows. Research shows that it is better to ask more direct questions like, are you feeling depressed, are you thinking about suicide, do you have someone to talk to, and do you need help, rather than just turning to a lighter topic.
Runway 2 Life and the National Alliance on Mental Illness have partnered to host live workshops in central Virginia that equip stylists with interpersonal skills and resources that could prove helpful during sensitive conversations with the clients in the chair.
Initially, workshops started with stylists, but trainings have expanded to include bartenders, members of law enforcement and other professionals who want to fight to change the way people view others during periods of depression or crisis. Providing easier access to resources and education at the community level is an important first step.
Depression is an invisible illness that hides in the appearance of happiness and success, Amsler said.
And talk saves lives. Studies have shown that suicidal thoughts only last for 20 minutes to 2 1/2 hours. If you can talk someone through that time frame, you can often talk that person out of taking his or her own life.
Our minds are programmed to live in a community, she said. However, people who are depressed tend to live in isolation, which can change the brain. Brain activity is 60 percent less after just 48 hours of isolation.
Amsler compared the brain of a suicidal person to a balloon. It just keeps taking in more and more negative thoughts until it pops. “They start believing lies about themselves: I’m a nuisance, I’m in the way, I just want the pain to end,” she said. “It is so important to get help before it goes into crisis mode. That is why a crisis help line is so important. They are highly effective at asking questions to change a person’s intended course of action.
“Someone with mental illness is like a person sitting in a chair with one leg,” she said. “It needs more support. Runway 2 Life adds the other three legs. It provides education for the person with negative thoughts, resources to help them through a crisis, and education for people around them who may recognize the signs and intervene.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control, suicide is one of only three causes of death that is increasing across the U.S. (Alzheimer’s disease and drug overdose are the other two.) Over the past three years, suicides have increased in Richmond. For every suicide, there are 25 other attempts.
“By doing events like the Runway 2 Life Fashion Show, we are creating awareness about [depression] and letting people know there is help,” Amsler said. “The event engages people. It is a fun activity, but most of all, it encourages people to speak up about it.”
September is National Suicide Prevention Month. The Runway 2 Life Fashion Show will be held Oct. 11 at Main Street Station in Richmond. For more information, visit runway2life.com.
For those who need help, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is (800) 273-8255.