As LNP’s Colin Evans reported in the June 9 Sunday LNP, suicide rates in Pennsylvania have increased by 34% since 1999, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A CDC report released last year found that suicides peaked in the commonwealth in the period from 2014 to 2016 with 16.3 suicides per 100,000 people. Gov. Tom Wolf announced May 29 that his administration is creating a task force on suicide. Erin James, press secretary at the state Department of Human Services, said the task force’s aim will be to develop a four-year statewide plan to reduce suicide and combat the stigma associated with suicide and mental health issues. The task force will meet from July until December and then will submit its plan to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration before establishing a governance structure to execute that plan across the state.
We’re generally wary when task forces are formed. They often seem to generate mostly talk and few results.
But in this case, more discussion is precisely what’s needed. Lots of it. We need to talk frequently about mental health and suicide — openly and publicly.
We need to shatter not just the stigma that has kept talk of mental health conditions to a barely discernible whisper, but we have to erase the notion that talking about suicide will encourage someone to take his or her life.
We need to be less afraid about addressing this subject.
As Teresa Miller, secretary of the state Department of Health, put it in a news release announcing the task force’s creation, “Suicidal ideation and crisis can affect people at any time and in any circumstance.”
As that news release noted, “suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the country and is one of only three that are on the rise. ... The CDC reports that problems with relationships, substance use, physical health conditions, a job or financial situation, and the legal system or another crisis most often contribute to suicide, and more than 50 percent of people who die by suicide do not have a known mental health condition.”
“Do not have a known mental health condition.”
We were struck by those words. And saddened by them.
We still tend to regard mental health as if it were unessential, only to be addressed when it presents as a crisis. It’s a cliche because it’s true: We’ll go to the dentist when the nerve beneath a tooth is causing us pain, but many of us don’t think about consulting a doctor or therapist when we’re so gripped by anxiety we can’t think straight.
We soldier on until we can’t. And that’s the problem.
We need to bring depression, anxiety and other mental health issues into the open, so we can seek help when we need it. And encourage others to seek help when they need it.
“Unfortunately, individuals in crisis and with mental health disorders are often shadowed with stigma much like individuals suffering from substance use disorders,” Jen Smith, secretary of the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs, noted in the Wolf administration’s news release. “As public servants, we have an obligation to reduce that stigma and create policy to help our loved ones and neighbors. This task force will bring together individuals from different facets of state government to do just that.”
This seems to us to be a good use of government — applying its resources to a thorny problem that individuals can’t solve alone.
That said, we all can do our part.
If your teenager has lost interest in anything beyond the four walls of his or her bedroom, talk to your child. Encourage honest discussion — if not with you, then with a mental health professional. Ask your child if he or she has had thoughts about self-harm.
A Pennsylvania Youth Survey showed that 16% of Lancaster County students ages 10 to 24 said they considered suicide in 2017. Thirteen percent planned suicide; 9% attempted it.
So don’t fear: You won’t be planting the idea in your teenager’s mind.
The same goes for other family members, or friends, or colleagues.
As Jayne Miller of WellSpan Philhaven wrote in a column for LNP in April, “Research indicates that talking openly about suicide is helpful, not harmful. So don’t wait to have the conversation.”
Miller wrote of her own struggle with suicidal thoughts after her husband told her he wanted to end their marriage.
This is how suicidal thoughts begin, she wrote: “They dance their eerie dance in a brain that has not much fight. A brain that is so worn out, which has no color, is willing to engage in this dance.”
Noted Miller: “Life can come at us in a very hard, overwhelming way. We find out very quickly that we don’t have the control over things that we thought we had. It can be unpredictable and cruel. And any one of us can find ourselves broken.”
When one feels broken, it can be difficult to reach out for help, she wrote. So she had these suggestions for what we can say to someone who is struggling:
— “I am here for you. You are a good friend and mean the world to me.”
— “Are you having any thoughts of giving up? Are you having any thoughts of suicide?”
— “I would be devastated to lose you. We can get help together. I am on your side.”
Miller said that when a loved one is suffering, and there are no easy answers, “we tend to stay quiet and just hope for the best outcome.”
We need to resist that urge.
Other mental health experts suggest we reconsider the language we use when we talk about suicide — in particular, to abandon the verb “commit.”
“The word ‘commit’ comes from a time when suicide was treated as a crime,” explains the website Beyond Blue.
We must speak with compassion and without judgment. But most of all, we must speak about it, even if we stumble through the conversation at first.
And employers: If you offer an employee assistance program, reassure your employees that their careers won’t be harmed if they use it to seek counseling. Do your part to reduce the stigma around mental health issues.
There were 53 suicides in Lancaster County in 2018, according to yearly reports from the county coroner.
That was 53 too many.
Let’s work together to bring that number down. And lift up one another.
If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs immediate help, contact the following organizations:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, suicidepreventionlifeline.org,
Those who are deaf or hard of hearing can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline via TTY at 800-799-4889.
Lancaster Crisis Intervention, 717-394-2631.