From the Jackson Hole News & Guide Column Sound Mind
Suicide is a difficult topic to talk about, but the fact remains that the numbers have been increasing nationwide over the past decade. Add to that this past year’s pandemic challenges — isolation, loneliness and issues with politics and social media — and we are seeing many people struggling at higher levels.
Suicides, usually fueled by underlying mental illness, are especially worrisome for the groups that are seeing the largest increases: adolescents and college students, veterans and older adults, as well as those in the highest-risk populations. Before the pandemic, more than 40,000 Americans died by suicide every year, making it the 10th leading cause of death in the nation.
Wyoming and other Western states tend to have numbers even higher than the national average. Suicide is the second leading cause of death in Wyoming for people ages 10 to 34, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says. The suicide rate in Wyoming tends to be one of the highest in the U.S., usually within the top three, along with Montana and Alaska. The statistics are heartbreaking for those lives lost, but also for all the people left behind. Teton County has seen fewer than other Wyoming counties for the past decade or so.
What can you do? There are several options for free training to help members of the community recognize and respond to someone who is struggling. The Jackson Hole Community Counseling Center’s Mental Health First Aid program is one. This eight-hour training covers a variety of mental health issues. Specific to suicide prevention are safeTalk and Question, Persuade and Refer, or QPR. These trainings give people the skills to recognize the warning signs of suicide, ask questions and provide resources for intervention. They are free to the public and can be set up for organizations or interested community members.
Small towns present more difficulties with talking about suicide. Many times people first reach out to loved ones, clergy, teachers or friends, who may worry about saying the wrong thing. How can we go about discussing the issue respectfully and responsibly?
First: Be direct when talking about suicide.
Do not be afraid to ask the question “Are you having thoughts of suicide?” One of the biggest misconceptions regarding suicide is that if you ask the question you may plant the idea. Actually, asking the question shows support and concern.
If someone is showing suicidal ideation, don’t dismiss or minimize the person’s comments (i.e., “It’s really not that bad”). Instead, face it head-on:
- Talk to the person about your concern. Ask if he or she has been thinking about attempting suicide or has a plan for how to do it. Having a plan indicates a higher risk of action.
- Seek help. Contact the individual’s doctor, mental health provider or other health care professional. Let other family members or close friends know what’s going on.
- Call a suicide or crisis hotline.
- Make sure the person is safe. If possible, eliminate access to anything that could be used to attempt suicide. For example, remove or lock up firearms, other weapons and medications.
- Call 911 if the person is in danger of self-harm or suicide. Make sure someone stays with that person.
Education plays a crucial role for communities in preventing suicide and eliminating the stigma surrounding mental illnesses. Articles about suicide can educate readers about risk factors, warning signs and local resources for intervention.
In addition, there is much more to understand about why people choose suicide as an option.
Many families or loved ones blame themselves or feel judged by others. Education may provide interventions and understanding to not only minimize risk but also be respectful to the people affected by suicide. Those talking about suicide should be sensitive to tone, content and language. Responsible discussion should avoid judgment — intentional or implied — when reporting the full story and should also include education about suicide prevention.
Without a doubt, discussions about suicide should be happening throughout our community. At the same time there should be a focused approach to overall community-based mental health care to address the underlying mental illness issues and increase hope.
Several organizations and individuals are working as part of the Teton County Suicide Prevention Coalition on initiatives to provide information, support, counseling, training and prevention programs.
Call the Jackson Hole Community Counseling Center at 733-2046 or the Teton County Prevention Management Organization at 264-1536 for details or to get involved. Services are available and made affordable for our community either through Counseling Center and the Mental Health JH program.