Suicide prevention

Just worrying that a family member or friend may be suicidal isn't going to save a life.

Preventing suicide, experts say, begins with directly asking: Are you thinking about taking your life?

"The moment when we have the power to make a difference," said Jan Baily of Mental Health America of Lancaster County, is when someone is saying life's not worth living.

"It's important to enter that conversation and lean in," Baily said in the wake of actor Robin Williams' suicide. "They are awkward and often difficult conversations to have, but they are necessary and important conversations to have."

If talking uncovers safety concerns, the best option may be to call either 911 or Lancaster County Crisis Intervention at 394-2631.

Feeling down is a normal emotion, experts say, and not to be confused with suicidal thoughts or serious depression.

But when a depressed mood disrupts family life, work and sleep, "then those are signs it's starting to get more serious," said Tad Santos, director of clinical services at Quest Behavioral Health.

Warning signs

When should we start to worry? Experts note the following warning signs or risk factors. Several together may indicate a serious problem.

— Interest in buying a gun or exploring the Internet for suicide methods.

— A significant change in routine behaviors. This could include binge eating or not eating. Also, oversleeping or an inability to sleep because of anxiety or racing thoughts.

— A loss of interest in enjoyable activities and no interest in making plans.

— Self injurious or unusually reckless behaviors, such as engaging in heavy substance abuse.

— Suffering a significant trauma or shouldering unusual stress.

— Feeling hopeless, trapped or desperate. Also, seeing no purpose in life.

— Unbearable physical or emotional pain or a combination of both.

— Feelings of being a burden.

— Withdrawing and becoming isolated.

— Dramatic mood swings.

— Beginning to give away possessions.

When crisis looms

Lawrence George of Lancaster County Behavioral Health & Developmental Services said Crisis Intervention helps a caller assess needs and get appropriate help.

Safety comes first, George said, and may lead to a call for police and ambulance. Crisis workers may start the process for an involuntary mental health commitment, if needed to assure safety.

Baily with Mental Health America said it's long past the time when shame and stigma should attach to mental illness. The fact that Lancaster County had 54 suicides last year and 24 though this June shows there's work to do.

"What we want to do is encourage individuals, especially men who typically don't reach out for help easily, to find a place to plug in to" for help, she said.

MHA, for example, offers separate, free support groups for men and women experiencing depression.

Baily encourages those with health insurance and employee assistance programs to find a mental health provider in their network. She said MHA makes referrals for those without insurance or financial resources.

"It's time to put a spotlight on suicide and depression," Baily said. "With the tragedy (involving) a brilliant, generous man, hopefully we do not become complacent, but become motivated."

Want to support suicide prevention efforts? Baily invites participation in a 5k run/walk Saturday, Sept. 13 at Neffsville Community Park. See www.walkfordes.org.

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Jeff Hawkes writes about social policy and the well-being of Lancaster County and its people for Lancaster Newspapers. He can be reached at jhawkes@lnpnews.com or (717) 481-6141.