By Board Supervisor Lisa Bartlett
During the month of September, the county launched a weeklong campaign called “Light Up Hope OC,” during which many prominent locations, including Dana Point Harbor and the Mission in San Juan Capistrano, were lit up in teal and purple to raise awareness about suicide prevention and offer hope to the Orange County community.
Mental illness and suicide remain difficult topics to discuss and are frequently tabooed subjects, but they don’t have to be. For too long, people struggling with depression, loneliness, isolation, and feelings of hopelessness have suffered in silence, afraid perhaps of being judged or shamed.
On the flip side, there are those who’ve sensed that all is not quite right with a loved one—they seemed distant, withdrawn, sad—but they could not find the words to start the conversation or were too afraid to broach the subject for fear of doing more harm than good.
So, how do we overcome the stigma surrounding mental illness? How do we help and encourage those struggling with emotional pain to seek help without fear and/or trepidation? And how can we overcome our fear of sparking a meaningful conversation about suicide that could ultimately save a life?
Well, we can start by recognizing that suicide is preventable and acknowledging that mental illness is as real and debilitating as any other physical ailment.
While many of us don’t think twice about going to a doctor or hospital when we’re not physically feeling well, it takes a tremendous amount of courage and strength for someone suffering from a mental illness to first acknowledge they need help, and second, seek treatment to heal the pain and suffering.
Listening, expressing concern, and providing reassurance will go a long way in supporting someone grappling with suicidal thoughts.
Suicide impacts the senior community particularly hard. Older adults comprise just 12% of the population, but they make up 18% of all suicides. Loneliness is one of the top reasons why older adults attempt suicide. Many have lost a spouse and may not have family or friends nearby.
Social connections are critical to good mental health. It’s so important to keep in touch with your older loved ones. Ask them how they are feeling, and if you get signs that they are depressed, anxious, or notice they start to give away possessions and put their affairs in order, express your concern, reassure them and—most importantly—get help.
The county’s Health Care Agency offers a comprehensive range of mental health and suicide prevention resources to support individuals of all ages who are experiencing, or at risk of experiencing, a behavioral health emergency.
In 2020, I spearheaded efforts to create the Office of Suicide Prevention, which oversees key suicide prevention and stigma-reduction programming. Not long after that, in partnership with the private sector, the county opened the first mental health and wellness campus in Orange County.
BeWell OC, located in the City of Orange, is the first of three planned campuses to offer a comprehensive system of care for mental health.
We can all play a role in promoting and supporting good mental health. Please encourage those in crisis to reach out by calling the 9-8-8 lifeline and get the help they need. Together, we can make a difference.
For more information on suicide prevention and stigma reduction, visit suicideispreventable.org/.
Lisa Bartlett sits on the Orange County Board of Supervisors, representing the Fifth District. She was reelected in 2018.