What’s next: Breaking through stigma, talking about suicide
The problem is clear. The solution is not. But there are steps Mesa County residents can take in hopes of putting a dent in the local suicide rate.
To start, learn the signs that a person may be contemplating suicide. Leslie Kent, president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness’ Western Slope chapter, which offers support groups, said people shouldn’t expect others to divulge their full intentions without someone asking, although hints and signs of suicide may be present.
“Who wants to go tell somebody, ‘Oh, I’m thinking of killing myself?’ So it’s about watching for signs as a community,” Kent said.
Kent and others fighting the county’s prevalence of suicide said talking about suicide and mental health are the best way to fight the stigma. Whether it’s asking a friend if he or she is contemplating suicide, attending a support group to share feelings about mental illness, calling a suicide hotline or seeking help for yourself or someone else at West Springs Hospital, professionals and survivors agree getting the dialogue going is key.
More people are talking in Mesa County. NAMI Western Slope rolled out a banner campaign in March to raise awareness about suicide and mental illness. A group at First United Methodist Church conducted a survey about mental health last year and is hosting a day of prayer next month for people with mental illness and those who have completed suicide. The Mesa County Health Department named suicide, along with teen pregnancy and obesity rates, one of its three “winnable battles” in 2012 and hosted summits on each topic last year to stir community discussion.
The Mesa County Suicide Prevention Coalition was founded in 2000 by a group of citizens who took notice of the county’s high suicide rate and wanted to brainstorm ways to address the problem. The Western Colorado Suicide Prevention Foundation was founded in 2006, oversees the coalition, and regularly provides classes educating the community about suicide prevention and awareness. Foundation Executive Director Karen Levad said the foundation’s efforts started with more of a focus on adolescents but the group now focuses on suicide prevention at all ages.
“We’re attempting to cover the entire lifespan,” she said.
Still, the county suicide rate climbs, from 30 in 2000 to 40 in 2007 to 51 last year, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, which counts suicides by Mesa County residents whether they died in the county or not.
The message of these groups rarely reaches beyond people already touched by suicide, and even some people in that category are still too ashamed or fearful to discuss the problem. According to experts, the conversation about suicide needs to continue, louder, to break down stigma and save lives.
WHAT TO SAY
The 2012 Mesa County coroner’s suicide report shows 57 percent of county residents who died by suicide last year in the county either expressed suicidal thoughts or previously attempted suicide.
Michelle Hoy, regional director of West Springs Hospital and Mind Springs Health, said people should never try reverse psychology with a suicidal person, such as saying, “Well then, do it,” if someone threatens suicide. Instead, she said people should ask someone directly if he or she is thinking about attempting suicide. Don’t shy away from the question by using euphemisms for suicide or ask, “You’re not thinking about suicide, are you?” in order to avoid allowing people a route around the question or to make them think you don’t really want to hear the answer, said Sonja Encke, suicide prevention coordinator for the Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
“There is no data to say talking about suicide makes them think about it,” Hoy said. “Hopefully if they are thinking about it, it lets them know it’s OK to say they have been thinking about it. Most people contemplating suicide feel isolated. It’s on us to open the dialogue. Most often, people are pretty honest about their answer.”
Levad said asking the question helps both the suicidal person and the questioner “know what they’re dealing with.” Levad suggested the person who asks the question remain calm and non-judgmental and stay with the person until they can get professional help. Above all, she recommends responding, not reacting, when a person divulges that he or she is suicidal.
“It’s not about you and your panic. It’s about providing a space for that person to reveal the struggles they’ve been going through. It’s a generous gift to give somebody,” Levad said.
WHERE TO GO
West Springs Hospital, formerly Colorado West Regional Mental Health, has staff available at all times to evaluate whether a person is suicidal. If someone is suicidal, they can be admitted to the hospital for as long as it takes to assure staff the person is ready to leave. The average stay is six to eight days, according to Hoy, but a person could stay as long as a few weeks if needed.
A psychiatrist cares for each suicidal patient at the hospital and determines whether the person needs new or different medications, offers the person therapy and helps them develop skills for dealing with stress and the reason or reasons they wanted to kill themselves. Before the person is discharged, staff devise a plan for how the person should proceed with follow-up therapy or other actions. Hoy said patients from outside the Western Slope sometimes are not checked on after they’re discharged, but most patients don’t leave the hospital without any further contact.
West Springs and Mind Springs Health provide therapy, group counseling, and a 24-hour crisis hotline (888-207-4004) that is staffed with people ready to talk around the clock. People who are suicidal or who think someone else is suicidal also can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline for help at 1-800-273-8255.
Community members shouldn’t hesitate to contact the hospital if they believe someone is suicidal, Hoy said.
“We as a community can be a lot more preventative if we are aware of (suicide) and reduce the stigma,” she said.
BREAKING THE SILENCE
Thirty-six-year-old Grand Junction resident Lorna Ward, who attempted suicide last April and battles depression, said she wants all people to know suicidal thoughts and mental illness are not something to tackle alone or anything to be ashamed of. Ward said she has encountered some people who say they don’t know anyone who has attempted suicide. She said that’s unlikely, given an estimated 18 to 25 suicide attempts are made for every one completed suicide in America, according to the Suicide Prevention Foundation.
“I have no shame talking about it,” Ward said. “I’m not a broken person. It’s an illness like any other.”
Reducing the stigma around suicide and mental illness is one of 10 suicide reduction strategies recently compiled by the Western Colorado Suicide Prevention Foundation. Another objective is reduce access to means, possibly with a campaign similar to one in New Hampshire that suggested people hold on to a loved one’s guns if they suspect the gun-owner is suicidal.
Levad said all 10 steps are currently being addressed locally, although more could be done.
“We need to recognize it as a community responsibility. We all have a role to play,” she said.
Hoy said more public awareness and discussion of mental illness and suicide may help decrease the number of completed suicides in the county. The more people in the community recognize the warning signs of suicide and refer suicidal people to professionals, the more likely suicides are to decrease, she predicted.
“Pretty much on a daily basis we have people coming to us contemplating suicide and they can turn that around and get better,” she said. “People recover from suicide and feeling they want to hurt themselves often. People get better.”
GETTING THE RATE DOWN
The Western Colorado Suicide Prevention Foundation offers 90-minute QPR training monthly at Community Hospital and any other time it is requested by a group or business. The acronym stands for Question, Persuade and Refer, the steps recommended for a person who has a suicidal loved one.
The foundation also hosts ASIST (Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training) in two-day segments every quarter. Levad said ASIST is internationally recognized as an effective suicide prevention tool.
“Fort Bliss in Texas has the lowest suicide rate of any base in the U.S. because they require everyone to take ASIST,” Levad said. “We can’t order people to take it but the more who do, the more likely we are to reduce the suicide rate.”
A former patient of West Springs who wanted to remain anonymous said she was admitted to the hospital after threatening suicide in June. She said she had no support system once she left the hospital and believes the Grand Valley would benefit from having a transition house for people who have no “safety net” once they leave the hospital, especially if they have trouble reaching counseling services due to health, mobility or financial issues.
“Three days is not going to stabilize you. Nothing’s really changed (at home) while you’re gone,” the woman said. “I would have voluntarily gone somewhere if I had someplace to go.”
Getting the faith community involved in decreasing the suicide rate is a goal for a social well-being group at First United Methodist Church. Church member Sally Olsen said the church surveyed caregivers last year and was surprised to hear how many people had issues with mental illness or suicidal thoughts.
“There is some sort of cloud over this area and nobody knows what it is. We have a lot of young men in particular that are desperate, have no job and access to guns. We’re looking at the county as a whole and what assets we have to help people that are very discouraged,” Olsen said.
The church will host a day of prayer from noon to 6:30 Oct. 8. The event will feature speakers who can provide information about mental illness treatment and suicide prevention and a prayer and candlelight vigil for people who have completed suicide.
“So many people have had people who committed suicide or are mentally ill and they just don’t talk about it,” Olsen said.
ADVICE FROM SURVIVORS
If you’re thinking about suicide, remember who you’ll leave behind.
That’s the advice of Mandy Miller, the 24-year-old sister of Christian Godina, who killed himself at his Clifton home in 2010 when he was 14 years old. While Godina was surrounded by four sisters, a brother and a mom, Miller said her advice applies to even the most isolated people. For example, she said the three women kidnapped and hidden away for a decade in Cleveland received support and well-wishes from complete strangers after they were found this summer.
“People forget that other people care about them—complete strangers that they’ve never even met before. No matter what, you should remember somebody cares,” she said.
Miller also recommends people see counseling as just another part of health care.
“People act like it’s a bad thing. It’s not. It’s like seeing your regular doctor,” she said.
Carrie Pell, a 37-year-old Grand Junction resident who helped organize a suicide prevention walk Sept. 7 to reach out to people like her who have lost someone to suicide, said people should not be afraid to seek help for someone who is suicidal.
“They may be upset with you for sending them to Colorado West (now West Springs Hospital), but their life is worth it,” she said.
Pell said the impact of suicide on a family reaches past the pain of loss, the struggle of a loved one leaving behind financial burdens and the constant questions of “what if?” and “why?”
“For every person that completes suicide, there are at least eight people who will think about it or try it or complete suicide,” Pell said.
Grand Junction resident Kim Archuleta, 43, who lost her brother to suicide last May, said people may not be sure what to say to someone who has lost a loved one to suicide, but she has some advice: Simply invite that person to talk about the good or bad times with the person who died and allow the survivor to vent by asking if they feel OK that day.
Grand Junction resident Maggie La Hue, 41, considered suicide and lost her mother to suicide 20 years ago. She said she found a way to recognize herself as valuable and a gift to her family. Her mother struggled to see herself that way. La Hue encourages others to be kind and patient with people who may feel suicidal or doubt their worth.
“It’s not always obvious. It is important when you see someone having a crummy day to let them know they’re loved. It’s important for them to believe it. But you can’t stop telling them that until some day they believe it,” she said.