To the Editor:
“Be the 1 to start the conversation” is the tagline of three billboards scheduled by the Tri-Town Youth Services Suicide Prevention Workgroup for installation in the tri-town area during November and December. The billboards are intended to create awareness of local and statewide efforts to prevent suicide.
It’s a shocking thought that in 2011, 8.5 million people nationwide had seriously contemplated suicide and that in Connecticut someone dies by suicide on average every day of the year. A person considering suicide is in pain; they very often do not see any alternatives to suicide. They may engage in despondent and self-defeating thinking, increasing their sense of hopelessness. We, ordinary people, can learn to recognize the signs and symptoms of suicidal thinking and how to act—for example, when and how to use 2-1-1 for crisis intervention—to let a person in severe emotional pain know we care.
The conversation about suicide is also a conversation about mental health and well-being. The statistics surrounding mental health disorders are formidable as well. Every year in the United States, 1 out of every 5 adults over the age of 18—or 45.6 million people—will experience a mental illness. Lifetime rates are even higher. Across a lifespan, 1 out of 2 people will suffer with a mental health problem at some point. So it is extremely likely we’ll encounter someone in our families, workplaces, schools, churches, or communities, who lives with a diagnosed mental disorder. Studies show the vast majority of people experiencing mental illness can be treated effectively and live full, satisfying lives, contributing positively in all the places they live, work and play. Yet nearly 60% of people with disorders do not seek mental health treatment. Of those who do seek treatment, even they typically delay doing so for a decade. Stigma can be a determining factor in preventing people from receiving the help they need.
Stigma isolates, shames, embarrasses and literally threatens the well being of an individual. Think of the words we commonly hear when people talk about a person with mental illness; none of them are attractive. While we would be hard pressed to hear someone referred to as “a cancer,” or “a broken leg,” we often do hear people referred to as “manic depressives” or “schizophrenics.” This kind of labeling is disrespectful and creates a daunting barrier to recovery. Because mental health problems impact one’s ability to work, carry out daily activities and engage in satisfying relationships, the longer a person waits to receive help the more their illness will have disrupted their lives. While the above statistics address the adult population, consider this: half of all mental health problems arise before age 14, and 75% before age 25, a period of time we now know is critical for brain development. How can we begin to eliminate stigma and increase the likelihood that people suffering from mental health concerns or in crisis will get the help they so urgently need?
Eliminating misconceptions about mental illness, engaging the media in reducing erroneous stereotypes, and providing tools for community members to support their acting positively, confidently and compassionately when mental health concerns do arise can go a long way to eliminating stigma. For example, despite the prevalent misconception that people with mental illness are violent, there is generally very little risk of violence or harm to a stranger from casual contact with an individual with a mental health disorder. In fact, a person with a mental illness is much more likely to be a victim than a perpetrator of violence. The media offers hope for eradicating stigma because of its power to educate and influence public opinion. And in Deep River, a course is being offered by Tri-Town Youth Services on January 7th and 14th entitled Mental Health First Aid which teaches members of the public how to respond in a mental health emergency and offer assistance to someone who appears to be in emotional distress.
Not every person in psychological distress is at risk of suicide or has a mental disorder, but the strains, stresses, and challenges of today’s society increase our vulnerability. With a 50 – 50 chance of developing a mental health concern in a lifetime, committing to connection vs. isolation and support vs. shame—whether we find ourselves in a position to give or to receive—increases all of our chances for individual and community well-being.
14 Dickinson Court
Deep River, CT 06417
Claire M. Walsh has had extensive experience working with adults and adolescents as a Clinical Social Worker and Addictions Specialist. She is a member of the Tri-Town Youth Services Suicide Prevention Workgroup.