In light of the publicized suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, I want to focus on the important issue of suicide and how we can continue to help those with behavioral health conditions receive the treatment, understanding and attention that those with physical health conditions receive. Following these celebrity suicides,
“A staggering 75% of those who need help do not seek it because of the stigma.”
The topic of stigma and how it impacts the ability of people to get help was previously 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. We hear things like, “Why didn’t they stick with treatment and avoid these relapses?” Well, try to imagine if someone who was treated for cancer is having a relapse, goes to get help and is told, “Sorry, we already treated your cancer. If it’s back again, not our fault, we won’t give you chemo again.” It would be unthinkable, right?
Yet this attitude is exactly how 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
- 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
- In 2016, nearly 45,000 lives were lost to suicide in the Unites States
Even more shocking than the above, the suicide rate has increased 30% from 1999 to 2016, so when we say that suicide is a public health issue, it is a gross understatement.
"...the suicide rate has increased 30% from 1999 to 2016"
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. A study published in Dec 2016 found that, worldwide, the majority of those living with depression do not seek help. And, in some countries, only one in 27 people receive “minimally adequate care for their condition.”
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 these 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, including AFSP’s Out of the Darkness Community Walks. Many of you participate in events like these and are personally motivated. But in general, we still struggle, as a society, to talk about and focus on behavioral health conditions, and we still treat them the same way we treat other diseases. Mental health is still a struggle for people to discuss openly, mostly due to a lack of understanding and education. Often there is worry that talking about mental health and addiction will cause more harm than 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 the topic of suicide was always the day with the most anxiety and questions, which would naturally spill over into my training. So 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 true; we do an amazing service when we bring up suicide and talk openly and honestly about mental health. Rarely do we ask someone how they feel and genuinely want to hear more than “fine.” I would tell the volunteers, “If there is one thing you take with you and remember, it’s the gift of being present and listening. It is a gift when we listen to someone wholly. Nothing else matters in that moment but the person you are helping. The most valuable thing you 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. Mental illness takes lives just as cancer does.
Learn More. Get Informed. Share With Others
We at Relias were lucky enough to host a suicide prevention webinar with experts from Suicide Prevention Resource Center and Zero Suicide Advisory Group. They discuss the Zero Suicide Framework, how to implement it, and Centerstone shares their story of reducing suicides for those in their care by 65% over two years.
In addition to our efforts in the United States, Relias has worked with the Zero Suicide Alliance, which includes Mersey Care NHS Foundation Trust in the UK, in the development of a free, publicly-accessible 20-minute suicide prevention training course.
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 and share the hotline number with those you serve; 1-800-273-8255.
For people who are uncomfortable dialing into a hotline and speaking with someone, there is another, increasingly popular option called the Crisis Text Line, which offers free, 24/7 crisis support in the US. All a person would do is text 741741 to connect and text with a trained Crisis Counselor.
Zero Suicide is leading the way in suicide prevention and treatment efforts, 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 him talk about his experiences with Zero Suicide Alliance and watch a few of his conference presentations on suicide and prevention.
This is what motivates and drives us at Relias, educating 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.