By Jim Taylor
An average of one per day. That is the estimated number of people who die by suicide in Orange County. It is probable that number is higher, maybe even much higher given the overall stigma casting a shadow on not just suicide, but mental health issues in general. Religious and societal pressures can cause suicides to go unreported as a cause of death. This stigma is very present in death and it can be worse in life.
But what about our children?
According to the latest statistics regarding suicide and self-harm from the Orange County Health Care Agency, San Clemente is included in the cities with the highest teen suicide rate. At the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s (AFSP) annual conference held in Irvine this year, it was revealed that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is now tracking suicides in eight to ten-year-olds.
In an informal survey conducted by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention with eighth graders in Pennsylvania, a rhetorical question was asked.
“Give me an example of an adult you would talk to if you were struggling.”
The students were silent. When asked why they wouldn’t even tell their parents if they might have thoughts of suicide, the response was, “because your parents want you to do well, so I’d be ashamed to tell them.”
Even in children there is shame in admitting a mental issue.
There is no shame in telling someone you have the flu. People don’t get embarrassed if they have cancer. Somehow, we need to alleviate and ultimately remove the barriers society has put in place to discourage people—and our children—from discussing something that can be harmful or even fatal.
So how do we do it?
- Talk about what happens in the news.When a story surfaces on the news about a suicide, talk about it. At times, people who cannot conceive the thought of taking their own lives will denigrate the victim. Yes, victim. Saying things like the individual was a “fool,” “how could they do this to their family” or sweeping it under the carpet with the “they were sick” comment doesn’t help. To a person without suicidal thoughts this bounces off of them. However, to a person currently struggling, it reinforces the idea that their thoughts are sick, hurtful to others and selfish. Talking about suicide casually in conversation without labeling can work wonders in letting someone know that perhaps they can be helped.
- Words are powerful and so are the way they are phrased. Most people in the suicide prevention arena do not use the phrase that someone “committed suicide” as though the person committed a crime. We say, “died by suicide.” Even the Associated Press, has included this in their style guidelines, and the California Department of Education utilizes this phrase on their Youth Suicide Prevention page. The Suicide Hotline has been renamed to the Suicide Prevention Lifeline too. Simple changes like these can start to promote positive change.
- Attend a workshop or orchestrate one. Many suicide prevention organizations, including American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), have presentations and seminars on the subject, including training on how to speak to someone who appears to be struggling. They also discuss how to provide resources to those who need them most, and ultimately, get them to a healthcare professional who can help.
- Get involved with a mental health or suicide prevention organization. Even just showing up at an event and being present makes a huge difference. There is comfort in knowing you are not alone. Almost 2,000 people attended the Out of the Darkness Walk in Fountain Valley last September. This was an event to shine a light on suicide, to get people talking about suicide and to lessen the stigma associated with it.
- Give them a safe environment to talk. If you have the slightest suspicion that your child may be depressed or if they are becoming more withdrawn, talk to them about it in a positive way. People get sad and some people get more than sad. The thought that a person has something wrong with them mentally, and that possible illness is a societal taboo, only compounds the problem. If they feel safe talking about it they will. You need to make them feel safe before they will open up.
The mental health world is changing for the better, but it is a slow change. This year, Governor Brown signed AB 2246 which requires California schools to adopt suicide prevention policies for students in grades seven through twelve. We can keep the momentum going by changing the way we think about mental health issues, reduce and eliminate the stigma, shine a light on the problem and save lives.
Jim Taylor is the Chairman for the Orange County Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. He can be reached at 949.510.6531
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