Most news organizations, including this one, have a policy that we generally don’t print news and names of suicides. While it’s not universally true — exceptions are when public resources or public people are heavily involved — it’s a well-intentioned policy that seeks to steer around deeply personal, private tragedy. It especially holds for children.
One result, though, is that suicide and its causes are massively under-reported and generally out of the public view. It’s something we sunny-by-nature Americans — with our tendency to think we’re violating the Constitution if not positive, perky and practical at all times — just don’t talk about and try not to think about. That’s despite the fact that suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in America, according to the Centers for Disease Control. It’s a far greater cause of death than homicide. There were 41,149 suicides and 16,121 homicides in the U.S. in 2013, according to CDC.
And according to the National Institute of Mental Health, more than 90 percent of people who kill themselves have a diagnosable mental disorder — like depression or addiction.
This is all by way of saying that emotional suffering and mental illness are a lot more widespread than anybody likes to acknowledge. So let’s get that acknowledgment out of the way right now, shall we? Let’s change direction?
“Change Direction” is the name of a campaign launched earlier this month by Give an Hour, a nonprofit network of volunteering mental-health professionals, and endorsed by everyone from the White House to the National Association of Social Workers. (March is National Social Work Month.) And, to get positive and practical (if not perky) right away, the group is publicizing the five signs of emotional suffering that may well signal that a friend or loved one could use help:
- Personality change. Sudden or gradual. The person just seems different than before.
- Agitation. Frequent problems staying in control, whether it’s anger or irritation or anxiety.
- Withdrawal. Pulling away from people and activities, finding less enjoyment, maybe starting to miss school or work. This isn’t the same as an introverted personality; it’s a change in previous sociability and activity.
- Poor self-care. Be it deteriorating hygiene or growing substance abuse or other risky or self-destructive behavior.
- Hopelessness. Did the person used to seem optimistic but now can’t find anything to feel good about?
Maybe you know somebody who resembles some of these points. Maybe it’s you. OK, what now?
“You connect, you reach out, you inspire hope, and you offer help,” says the ChangeDirection website. “If everyone is more open and honest about mental health, we can prevent pain and suffering, and those in need will get the help they deserve.”
What does reaching out and offering help mean?
Try this: “I’m worried about you. How are you feeling?”
“You mean a lot to me, I want to help.”
“I’m here. Want to talk?”
It may take one more than one offer. It may even mean taking the lead on a search for help, if the person doesn’t have “the will or drive” to do that on his or her own.
It could mean: “Are you thinking about suicide?” “Do you really want to die?”
And even: “Let’s get help. Let’s call the crisis line. I’ll stay with you.”
There are tons of options and resources for people seeking help; take a look at the website of Southwest Washington Behavioral Health, which contracts with Clark County to provide public mental health services; or the Clark County offices of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, a nationwide grassroots nonprofit, or Consumer Voices Are Born, a local one.
If the crisis is immediate, try the Clark County Crisis Line, 24/7, at 800-626-8137 or 360-696-9560. Or NAMI’s help line, during weekday business hours, at 360-695-2823, or the suicide line at 800-273-TALK. If it’s not exactly a crisis but a definite rough patch and you just need someone to talk to – someone who knows what it’s like – try the evening “Warm Line” at Consumer Voices Are Born, 360-903-2853.
America is at a crossroads when it comes to mental health, advocates say. We are all comfortable talking about and getting treatment for physical suffering; we are getting more comfortable talking about and getting treatment for mental suffering, too. Let’s keep moving in that direction.
At a mental health summit in Washington, D.C., on March 4, keynote speaker Michelle Obama flipped the whole picture of stoical suffering onto its useless and lonely head.
“Getting support and treatment isn’t a sign of weakness,” she said. “It’s a sign of strength.”