Stigma, Secrecy and a lack of understanding continue to make suicide hard to prevent here in Central New York and across the nation. Mental health also continues to get less attention than physical health problems.
Last month ended Suicide Prevention Month and WAER’s Chris Bolt reports recent reports highlight the problem, even as human services groups struggle to get people past crises that could turn tragic.
Many people might be familiar with Contact Community Services’ suicide prevention hotline. One thing Assistant Director for Crisis Intervention Stephanie Grandjean hears from people is how lonely they feel.
“Lots of times if people are struggling with thoughts of suicide, or they know someone who’s struggling, the might feel alone. They feel like they’re the only person who is having these thoughts or who is dealing with these concerns. But in reality, it’s one in 20 people in any given two-week period. So if you’re in a room of 20, chances are there’s someone there who’s having thoughts of suicide.”
More than just feeling alone, people also can feel judged. Contact’s Volunteer Relations Program Manager Kristine Knutson finds that’s still a barrier to seeking help.
“There’s a lot of stigma and shame and secrecy. And I think that can be a barrier for people seeking support services if they don’t want to talk about it. In many ways, that’s what’s appealing about the hotline because it is confidential. It can be a way to problem-solve and see what’s next.”
Under the right circumstances, that might be mental or physical health care, counseling, or other help. But big picture, suicide and other mental health issues don’t get the attention a medical issue might … especially, as Grandjean notes, given the scope.
“If you related that to a physical health concern … (for example) we had the big Ebola virus. If 5% of the population was dying from ebola we would do something…. Mental health really isn’t different than physical health.”
Several recent developments in the military further point out the problem. Four suicides in just over a month among the crew of one aircraft carrier. And a just-released Department of Defense study shows 541 suicides among service members in 2018 – and a rate 13-percent higher than in 2017.
Active duty suicide rates:
(source: Dept of Defense)
- 2018: 24.8 per 100,000 service members.
- 2017: 21.9 per 100,000
- 2013: 18.7 per 100,000
Military suicides are among the most prominent … the opioid epidemic is contributing many more, including many that go unreported. While the causes of suicides are complicated, there is also no one thing to do to help prevent. But Grandjean suggests a starting point when someone expresses any behavior or comments that could seem like their contemplating suicide is to simply ask.
“We do it a lot. It’s still something that causes your heart to pound, because if you don’t know what to do, if you get a ‘yes’ then it’s an even scarier conversation to have. So we really just want to encourage people to, if you are comfortable to start that conversation, and if you get a ‘yes’ to talk to them and then get them connected to someone who can help and support.”
Sometimes that support is a close friend or relative … and Knutson acknowledges you might not know what to say or do.
“What are some of the things you two can do together that you enjoy to just take a break from the stress for a little bit. It’s not always some big, magical thing to do. It could be as simple as spending time together, taking part in those activities that bring some measure of relaxation, and just promoting self-care.”
Of course this is also where the Suicide hotline comes in … even at times that haven’t reached crisis stage.
“The hotline is a support for them to talk about anything going on in their lives, Grandjhean says. They might be struggling with things at work; they might be struggling at school; they might be struggling with a relationship. We want to provide that support no matter what they’re going through. So hopefully they don’t get to the point where they are thinking about suicide.”
Another front can be building recognition in the community. Contact’s Crisis Intervention Facilitator Lindsey Treat is helping people identify signs that might help catch a problem before it gets to a tragedy.
“We actually get a lot of requests form the community, whether it be teachers, social workers, agencies asking us to come in and first, teach their staff and if there are students, we’ll actually do trainings with students as well, about suicide prevention and how you can spot it, and stop it in the beginning.”
More attention on suicides could be bringing more resources. A new federal proposal would increase funding for prevention services. And Grandjean says coordination between health facilities and counseling services is improving … where people released from psychiatric treatment are handed off and monitored on counseling and medications.
“So if someone has been discharged with a suicide attempt or suicide ideation, we follow-up with them in 24-48 hours, just to check up on them, see how they’re doing, check on their level of risk because often it’s very elevated after a discharge. And then make sure they’re getting to appointments that they have scheduled, reaching out to social supports, and continuing to check in. So I think it’s just a really exciting time in Onondaga County because there are a lot of programs to really follow a person at risk and make sure that they stay safe.
Still , on average one person dies from suicide in the U.S. every 12.3 minutes … a condition those at Contact Community Services consider 100-percent preventable.
Anyone interested in more information or volunteering can go to ContactSyracuse.org. The hotline for anyone in crisis is 315-251-0600.