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Speaking up about suicide can save lives, local mental health advocates say

Actor Robin Williams attends the CW, CBS and Showtime 2013 summer TCA party on July 29, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Paul A. Hebert/Invision/AP)

Actor Robin Williams attends the CW, CBS and Showtime 2013 summer TCA party on July 29, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Paul A. Hebert/Invision/AP)

We can’t use it carelessly, but Elaine de Mello said we can’t be afraid of the “s-word.”

Suicide is devastating, whether it’s highly publicized or whether it quietly affects a smaller corner of the community. But it’s also deeply, sometimes dangerously, misunderstood – and that’s why we mustn’t avoid speaking up about it, she said.

“It’s important to ask for help,” said de Mello, who oversees the National Alliance on Mental Illness in New Hampshire’s Connect program for suicide prevention and response. “Sometimes the help comes from friends, neighbors and family members as well as clinical providers. It’s something we all can do.”

Robin Williams’s death Monday, reported to the police as an apparent suicide, has resonated with many, and particularly those who have their own experiences with mental illness. Williams had talked openly about his struggles with depression and substance use, and the police said he had been recently seeking treatment for depression.

In the days since, many have shared their stories or sought out guidance on how to help others who might be struggling. De Mello and others in New Hampshire’s mental health community want to urge people to keep talking.

A number of pervasive myths surround suicide and mental illness in general, de Mello said: Someone who attempts suicide is selfish, there’s no way to help someone once they’ve seriously weighed it as an option, the list goes on.

In fact, de Mello said, mental illness is as legitimate as any other medical condition, and there are ways to help someone even if you’re not a trained mental health professional.

Initiating a conversation about suicide with someone who seems to be at risk is, contrary to popular belief, a critical step toward getting them treatment, de Mello said.

Try guiding it with the following questions, she said: How are you doing? Have you been feeling down or different lately? You could gently tell them you’re concerned about them because of changes you’ve noticed in their mood or behavior and that, sometimes, people who are feeling down might consider killing themselves.

Eventually, de Mello said, you have to get to the question: Are you thinking about suicide?

From there, de Mello suggested offering to reach out together to a local mental health center or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, available around the clock at 1-800-273-8255.

And perhaps most importantly, she said, you need to let the person you’re worried about know: “Look, I’m going to stay with you, I’m going to be here with you. I’m not going to let go of this.” Additionally, de Mello suggested letting the person’s provider know what your concerns are, as sometimes people will downplay the severity of their feelings when speaking with a mental health professional.

Marie Opie Williams, a family counselor with Child and Family Services of New Hampshire, also stressed the importance of providing support.

“Suicidal thoughts pass,” Opie Williams said. “The more we can surround people with community, the more we can kind of help people to get a different perspective.”

Stories to fight stigma

Deb Karr-Francis isn’t shy about sharing her story. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder several decades ago, and while she’s never attempted suicide, she said she’s been through periods of feeling “helpless, hopeless and pretty much desperate and lacking the will to live.”

After her diagnosis, she discovered that her grandfather died from suicide.

“Having the experience with my grandfather made my experience less frightening,” she said, adding that other family members have also dealt with mental illness. “It’s not my fault. Obviously there’s a trail that existed before I was born.”

Karr-Francis said her condition is kind of like riding a horse without the reins. When someone without bipolar disorder gets really “happy or joyful or elated,” they can pull back on that feeling; when they get sad, they can also pull back. It’s not so easy for her.

“When I’m on the throes of a manic episode or depression, I don’t have those reins,” she said.

As the coordinator for NAMI New Hampshire’s In Our Own Voice program, Karr-Francis speaks openly about her experience with mental illness and works with a panel of about 30 others who do the same.

The group gives presentations to civic organizations, police departments, school districts and anyone else who’s willing to listen around New Hampshire. The program also offers training for those interested in speaking out about their experiences.

“What I do, I don’t do it for myself, but for those who can’t speak,” she said. “Most of the people I work with, it’s their plight to help somebody else.”

Karr-Francis is also especially mindful of “safe messaging” when it comes to talking about suicide and mental illness. Even before Williams’s death, she’s been vigilant about reaching out to media outlets to ask them to avoid describing someone’s suicide in detail and to include resources for those seeking help.

The important thing, Karr-Francis and de Mello stressed, is to remember that mental illness affects people across all parts of the community. Williams’s death especially underscores that you can be successful and still have a serious mental illness, de Mello said.

“I hope what this has brought to light is that, No. 1, you can be very, very successful and still have a very serious mental illness,” she said. “And the opposite is true.”

And just look at what Williams was able to contribute to society, de Mello said – his mental illness did not prevent him from making a mark on the world, nor should others’ conditions.

Talking safely about suicide

Elsewhere, others are also learning how to recognize signs of suicide in someone they know and how to direct people to help.

Through a grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, NAMI New Hampshire is working with public health networks in the Lakes Region, Greater Concord and Greater Manchester to ramp up suicide prevention programs.

Traci Fowler, with the Lakes Region Partnership for Public Health, said the initiative has involved trainings for local businesses and schools to facilitate a “non-threatening” conversation about suicide. They’ve done workshops in Gilford and Laconia school districts, and there are plans to expand to others.

Child and Family Services of New Hampshire also treats people “across the lifespan,” Opie Williams said, and can help to connect people with local community mental health centers. It also places special focus on addressing mental health or substance abuse issues in kids and teenagers, she said, with the hope that detecting such issues early on might prevent someone from having more severe problems later in life.

NAMI New Hampshire also offers support for those who have lost loved ones to suicide, and de Mello encouraged people not to overlook the need to support these people as well as those who have considered suicide.

Above all, said Opie Williams and all of the others, people should approach conversations about suicide and mental illness with the understanding that these conditions do not have to be insurmountable. Sometimes it’s not possible to make all of the problems go away at once, but professionals and loved ones can show someone who’s suffering that incremental progress is possible.

“If you’re alive,” Opie Williams said, “there’s hope.”

For more information on the warning signs of suicide and how to help, there are several places to turn. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) is available for those who are considering suicide and those who are worried about someone else. The Suicide Prevention Resource Center (sprc.org), The Connect Program (theconnectprogram.org) and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (afsp.org) also provide ample resources for discussing suicide and seeking treatment.

(Casey McDermott can be reached at 369-3306 or cmcdermott@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @caseymcdermott.)

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