May is Mental Health Awareness Month and I want to focus on the important issue of suicide; how we can continue to help those with behavioral health conditions receive the treatment, understanding and attention that those with physical health conditions receive.
“A staggering 75% of those who need help do not seek it because of the stigma.”
I recently watched the senate finance committee hearing, “Mental Health in America: Where Are We Now?” The topic of stigma and how it impacts the ability of people to get help was highlighted by NFL player Brandon Marshall. He brought up the analogy of how mental health treatment is where Cancer or HIV treatment were 30-40 years ago. People wouldn’t openly discuss their illness, calling it “the big C” or getting HIV treatment anonymously and without using health insurance for fear of blame or judgement.
When someone struggling with addiction relapses or someone with severe depression attempts suicide again, we often see it as a fault with the individual. Why didn’t they stick with treatment and avoid these relapses? Can you imagine someone who was treated for cancer having a relapse, going to get help and being told “sorry, we already treated your cancer, if it’s back again, not our fault, we won’t give you chemo again”.
Yet this attitude is exactly many feel about addiction and other mental health issues that are difficult to treat. That somehow failing to stay sober or stay non-suicidal is a failing of the individual and not a symptom of very severe and fatal diseases.
The harsh reality; the numbers
According to the CDC,
- Over 41,000 people died in 2013 in the United States due to suicide
- Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States
- In persons aged 15-34, it is the second leading cause of death
Even more shocking than the above, the suicide rate has increased 24% from 1999 to 2014 (CDC, 2016)
When we say that suicide is a public health issue, it is a gross understatement.
Despite these numbers, people are reluctant to talk about mental health issues, suffering alone, in silence while family members and friends often aren’t sure how to help. We live in a society that still struggles to openly and honestly talk about mental health issues the same way we discuss physical health issues.
We have fundraising 5ks and different colored ribbons for a variety of medical conditions; from cancers to gastrointestinal conditions to HIV/AIDS. The events and media attention both raise awareness for the conditions and funding for research and treatment. People talk about medical conditions, research online, learn how to support and help each other when struggling with an illness, partly due to these campaigns.
I know what you’re thinking and you’re right; the behavioral health field also has awareness weeks and months, 5k runs/walks and other public awareness campaigns; many of your participate in them and are personally motivated. But we as a society in general still struggle to talk about and focus on behavioral health conditions and treat them the same way we treat other diseases. Mental health is still a struggle for people to discuss openly, mostly due to lack of understanding and education. Often there is worry that talking about mental health and addiction will cause harm vs. help.
What if talking about it puts the thought in their mind?
I used to conduct a crisis intervention techniques training for volunteers and the day they covered suicide was always the one with the most anxiety and questions. It would spill over into my training as well and we’d spend some time talking about “what if” situations. To most volunteers, the thought of talking to someone who might be feeling suicidal was overwhelming and almost paralyzing. The fear was usually a mix of feeling responsible for someone else’s life and concern that asking if someone was considering suicide would introduce the thought.
The opposite is actually true; we do an amazing service when we bring up suicide and talk openly and honestly about mental health. Rarely do we really ask someone how they feel and what is going, and genuinely want to hear more than “fine”. I would tell the volunteers if there is one thing they take with them and remember, it’s the gift of being present and listening. It is a gift when we listen to someone wholly, that nothing else matters in that moment but the person they are helping. The most valuable thing we can do is just focus on that person, listen and provide support.
Most stories of hope, of people who suffer from this illness and manage to find bright spots and achieve some stability, involve feeling connected, cared for and listened to by others. The more we hide from uncomfortable topics, the more fear we have about the unknown and the less we know about mental illness, the harder it is to help others and be a force in fighting these diseases.
Just like other medical conditions, we can’t save everyone and mental illness takes lives, like cancer does.
One of the over 41,000 this year…
Last week I found out about a suicide death of a 19 year old woman from my hometown and it has stayed with me and impacted me every day. She was the daughter of one of my favorite teachers and while I never met her, what was written by those who knew and loved her is revealing and astounding. This vibrant, giving, happy and wonderful human being was suffering from an illness that eventually took her life.
As a parent, I can’t imagine the pain and loss felt in losing a child. As a social worker, I know how severe an illness depression can be and what it does to someone suffering from it. This woman is one of over 41,000 who will die this year by suicide and the impact of each of those people is felt deeply by family, friends, colleagues, classmates and all who knew them (and even some who never met them). It is the rock thrown in the pond and the ripples that extend out…each and every one of these people.
When I read what her family wrote, I was pained but proud of how honest and open they are about her depression;
“Sarah was giving and gave her love and support to many. Unfortunately she was not able to give the same to herself, as she struggled with significant depression, the disease that ended her life far too early. Sarah brought radiant joy and energy wherever she went, lighting up rooms with her smile and filling them with her laughter. Her heart was for everyone.”
Similar to what Brandon Marshall said in his testimony about stigma, I believe this would not have been included in an obituary 30 years ago. There would have been shame, cover-up and a family going through even more pain than the loss of a child.
This incredible family ended with this:
“Many more people than we know are dealing with mental health issues, and suicides are far too common. We encourage everyone to be mindful of their loved ones and talk about mental health and suicide. If you feel a loved one may be considering suicide, please ask them. If you are considering suicide, please tell someone or call 1-800-SUICIDE or text 1-800-799-4889.”
This is the crux of what mental health awareness month is all about; Information, Education, Talking about topics that make people uncomfortable but need to be discussed. It’s about helping.
Learn more. Get informed. Share with others
Suicide Prevention Lifeline and Columbia University Medical Center. They addressed how suicide is preventable, strategies to help and what we have learned through research and experiences from the crisis centers and hotlines.
Suicide Prevention Lifeline is an amazing organization with incredible people (like Project Director John Draper, PhD) doing lifesaving work every day, check them out for more information.
Zero Suicide is another organization doing incredible work and their website is full of resources, toolkits and information for both healthcare and behavioral healthcare professionals and organizations. One of my favorite people, David Covington, LPC, MBA is co-lead of the Zero Suicide Advisory Group and works closely with this talented group of people. Hear to him talk about the importance of training, of knowledge, of empowering staff to work with suicide.
This is what motivates and drives us at Relias, education and helping professionals do their jobs at the highest level of performance. Many organizations in the Relias family, our valued clients, are providing innovative, high quality, easily accessible and affordable services to help those in need. Check out the crisis lines and behavioral health organizations in your community and then share with others.
Let us know what you and/or your organization are doing this Mental Health Awareness Month to Educate, Share, Start the discussion…