When it Comes to Suicide Awareness, Are You Willing to Be the One to Ask?

Warning: The statistics you are about to read may be alarming to you. That’s good, however, inasmuch as perhaps they will be the first step you take on your personal road to suicide awareness, and your friends and neighbors at the Berrien County Suicide Prevention Coalition hope you’ll help increase that awareness not only in your own family but your entire circle of friends and acquaintances.

Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in America. It’s important to just know that. Naturally, there are many other health reasons we pass away and the fact that suicide is even one of the top 10 is very scary.

Even more shocking is that suicide is actually the 2nd leading cause of death in individuals aged 10 to 35. That is not only significant, it is startling.

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In a 2015, study of Michigan high school students, researchers learned that 32-percent felt depressed, 17-percent were considering suicide, 15-percent had made a plan to attempt suicide, and 9-percent had actually attempted to take their own life at least once.

While more recent figures are still being compiled, the trend of suicidal thoughts in high school students is troublesome to say the least.

That is why the all-volunteer force at the Berrien County Suicide Prevention Coalition works hard to not only get more organizations, businesses, and families involved in the Coalition’s work, but to relentlessly campaign for awareness.

A hugely popular misconception regarding suicide is that talking about suicide with a person contemplating self-harm will make somebody who is borderline, go through with the act. Reality is exactly the opposite according to Kristen Jones, Manager & Counselor of the Lakeland Employee Assistance Program for Spectrum Health Lakeland in St. Joseph who is also a Licensed Master Social Worker. She tells us, “Research does prove — I know it sounds funny — but it proves that when you ask a person if they’re considering ending their life, or if they’re considering suicide, it will reduce further suicidal thoughts, because you’re allowing them an outlet, an avenue, or simply a place to talk about their thoughts and to process them. Sometimes just talking through it can help give them hope and potentially reduce their thoughts of suicide.”

Jones and Coalition Founder Trent Watford are increasingly strong advocates for all of us to ramp up our courage when alarm signals are emanating to, as Kristen says, “Just ask the question. If you see someone really depressed, and their demeanor is changing, let’s ask the question, ‘Are you thinking about harming yourself? Or have you thought about suicide?’” Naturally, it’s never easy, and Jones cautions, “Of course, you may still feel anxious if they say yeah, and wonder what to do next, but that’s where the Coalition has so many resources to help.”

The two seasoned advocates point out that, “On the other end, if the person is struggling with it and someone’s asking them, ‘are you thinking about ending your life?’ they’re going to feel such relief that someone has the courage to identify their pain, to identify their hidden secret of stress, and more often than not, they are open to some support even if it’s just, ‘let’s keep talking,’ or ‘I’m here for you,’ or ‘can we connect with someone else who is a counselor?’” and adds, “It does not mean they’re going to follow through. It doesn’t mean they’re actually going to complete it, but just talking about it can reduce further thoughts of the notion.”

Trent Watford further reinforces the concept of asking the question, saying that if the question comes from someone near to them, it can be more effective than from an outsider. He relates his own experience from when his son died by suicide, saying, “My son went through the nuclear program in the military, and while they did perform psychological exams where the counselor asks questions, sometimes there’s so much on the line as far as your job and things, you’re more inclined to keep things hidden from authority, whereas if it had been a confidant or someone close to him the outcome could have been different. That’s why we need to encourage everyone, not just counselors to have the courage to be asking these questions and coach those who are suffering.”

Looking back over the past year in particular, we’ve all heard stories of what a tough year it has been for mental health in general because of the ongoing pandemic. Looking at statistical data, Kristen Jones says, “Usually completed suicides are among people who are middle-aged and older while usually, suicide attempts are with younger people. So, our teenagers and children are being impacted the most by COVID, in terms of anxiety and depression — and thoughts of suicide — because we’re seeing more suicide attempts in that population bracket.” She goes on to explain that, “Generally speaking, children don’t end up having the courage or the means to complete the suicide.”

As far as completed suicides, in 2020, Berrien County had 21, which was the same number as in 2019, and the average since 2010 has been 22. That is an increase from years ago, but in more recent history it’s been holding steady, indicating that at least the message is getting out. Jones says, “My worry is for the future because if children are starting to think about suicide now, we know that people can continue down that path even as they become an adult, so we really want to make sure they’re getting the support they need now.”

Support for kids and teens is crucial right now. Kristen notes, most mental health professionals — and a lot of my colleagues are seeing a significant rise in social anxiety, because kids are not interacting the same way they ever had before. When you take a year off of not seeing kids in person, and then you have the masks on your face, all of those things are contributing to kids not connecting with their peers, not feeling confident in themselves and having increased anxiety.”

Trent Watford chimes in, suggesting, “I can speak from our experience. Our son’s suicide was at age 20, but when it was investigated by the Navy, they found, he was having suicidal thoughts at age 14, but keeping them totally hidden. I guess that’s the reason this emphasis on the concept of Be the One to Ask’ is so important.  It’s easy to mistake mental health problems as typical adolescent angst or indifference. It’s hard to tell it apart, and that’s why it’s so important for people to not err on the side of thinking everything’s fine, or that they’ll get over it.” Especially when you consider the fact that for every completed suicide, there are 25 attempts. So how many people are actually thinking about suicide — aren’t attempting or completing — but what could happen in the future?

Kristen says, “You need to be the one to ask. The http://BeThe1To.com site is very helpful in that regard. It has five steps and some very helpful detailed information. Even just reading that and trying to be aware of those steps is training. Awareness can make a huge difference, and the five steps are very simple things.” A helpful flyer from #BeThe1To is available here: BeThe1ToAsk-Flyer

That’s where everyone in the community can play a role simply by being open to learning more and receiving information.  One simple step is to add your email address to the Coalition’s email list. There’s a link on their website to do that. For organizations or individuals looking to go a step further, Trent invites them to, “Attend our monthly meetings on the third Tuesday of the month from noon to one.” The meetings are open to the public and are conducted over Zoom currently.

There are many ways for people to sign on for training sessions and learn more, and you don’t have to be an educator or a counselor or pastor or any other type of professional, you can be a mom or dad that simply wants to start the process, even before consulting or confronting a child on the issue of self-harm. Safe Talk is a three-hour training that’s designed for anybody and everybody to attend. A more intense training is Mental Health First Aid, an eight hour class with two versions including a focus on either youth or adult support. Find out about them and more training at this link.

Trent adds, “Here during the pandemic, we’re a great analogy about getting everybody vaccinated because that’s going to help everybody else. I guess we need to get everybody thinking about asking and thinking about the needs that people have, because we don’t know where people are at in their lives, and we have an average of 22 suicide deaths, but as Kristen mentioned, many more people who are attempting suicide, but we don’t know where those people are. So, we need to get a broad awareness.”

Kristen says, “I like that comparison to getting everyone vaccinated. This is a health crisis, too. We need to continue pushing in a bid to get people asking the question and caring about each other. People need to realize that there are many people attempting to end their life or having those thoughts, roughly every two weeks in Berrien County alone.”

September is National Suicide Prevention Month, and you can learn a great deal more on the subject by visiting the Coalition website at  https://www.berriencares.org/.

Watford concludes, “Our goal at the Coalition is based on getting more people to benefit from the information that we’re trying to gather and also participate. We are a volunteer organization and we can certainly use more people to participate.”

Just further proof that it takes a village in many more ways than one.

If you would like to be contacted by a volunteer representative of the Berrien County Suicide Prevention Coalition, please fill out the form. Please note that this form should not be used for emergencies.

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