A man grabs at his chest, staggers a bit and collapses. Did you see that? A show of hands from those whose first thought is “heart attack.” The public health community has done an excellent job of educating us about the signs and symptoms of a heart attack – for men.
It’s reasonable to say that few men or even women can quickly identify the signs and symptoms of a woman having the same public health issue. Have you seen a woman in the early stages of a heart attack? From my personal perspective as a woman, the public awareness campaign about a women’s risk of heart attack could use a major boost.
On the other hand, public health awareness about the signs and symptoms of an impending stroke has been very good. Even young children are taught to notice the basic signs using word association to help guide them. And we hear stories of children helping save a parent or grandparent. Did you see that?
Sadly, domestic violence is too often perceived a criminal justice issue. It is a public health concern that has had a tremendous amount of public awareness and funding thrown at it and yet, as a woman who experience brutal violence in a marriage, it too often feels as if we take one step forward and ten steps back in reducing the violence.
And we are bombarded with information and awareness campaigns about cancer across the lifespan and genders. You have certainly seen that. And the obvious intent of raising awareness and funding for all of these important public health concerns is to save lives.
No shame, no secrecy, no prejudice or discrimination, in other words – no stigma. Millions step up to help stop these medical concerns.
So, why is suicide so different? Suicide is a major public health concern too. Approximately 42,000 people die by suicide each year in the United States. By conservative estimates, that also means more than one million people across the life span attempt to die by suicide each year, some as young as 10, 11 and 12. In Bristol County, we lost 66 people to suicide in 2015. To date in 2016, we’ve already lost 31. That means that almost 800 others attempted suicide just in the county since January.
If I asked for a show of hands, how many would say they honestly know the signs and symptoms of suicide? Equally important, how many are willing to openly and honestly break the silence about this major killer and even talk about it? All too often with public health issues, people don’t seem to pay attention to what is happening until they are personally traumatized or impacted by a tragedy. A death by suicide is a public health tragedy. That person is not being selfish or morally weak. They are in extreme psychological pain and despair. It’s called a “psych-ache” by many in the field of suicide prevention. It is beyond comprehension unless it has been your lived experience.
Those 66 suicides in 2015 in Bristol County left behind no less than 8,580 people struggling with grief – suicide loss survivors. To date in 2016, that number is at least 4,000. You may be one.
September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. September 10th is World Suicide Prevention Day. If ever there was a time to come out from the shadows, to tear down the walls of discrimination against mental health issues and suicide, now is the time. The Massachusetts Coalition for Suicide Prevention (MCSP, http://www.masspreventssuicide.org) has launched a public awareness campaign to support suicide prevention activities and events in September. These events include everything from suicide prevention motorcycle runs and walks throughout the state, to prevention and intervention trainings, to community conversations, and so much more.
The Bristol County Regional Coalition for Suicide Prevention (BCRCSP), which is one of ten regional suicide prevention coalitions that operate under the auspices of the MCSP and the Department of Public Health, plans to host “Remembrance Trees of Hope & Healing” at multiple locations around the county on Saturday, September 10th, World Suicide Prevention Day (https://www.iasp.info/wspd/) at noontime. It’s a simple exercise but can create an awesome visual. A string of yellow & orange ribbons on tree branches or around tree trunks. No trees? How about along a fence?
The purpose is to honor those left behind by the death of a loved one to suicide. Later in the day on the 10th, we encourage people to change their Facebook status to a candle for one hour, put a candle near a window, or step outside your front door and hold a quiet candle light vigil for those we have lost to suicide and those left behind. Additional activities and public awareness events will be held later in the month including a motorcycle run and walks in Taunton, Attleboro and Fall River.
The point is to do something – to take some kind of action. Step up and get involved. Help us raise the bar of awareness that the public health goal is Zero Suicide. Some in the suicide prevention field are starting to discuss the need for an “army” – perhaps another version of AmeriCorps, to literally sweep into communities and bring education, training and support to those at risk – and save lives. But it all begins with public awareness and outrage that there is, in fact, a problem and we must take action to prevent more youth, adults and elderly from suicide.
And we also know that there are gaps – huge gaps in available services, but we cannot “fix” those gaps without a very public ground swell, a peaceful revolution to demand those gaps be filled and now. No one should have to wait weeks or months to see a clinician. And not everyone who has suicidal thoughts needs to be locked up in a psychiatric unit. We must find a better way to help those at risk find their way to hope and health. And while September’s events help us raise the bar of awareness about suicide prevention, this cannot be a one-and-done splash. We need to keep this flame burning brightly every day.
So whether you choose to be with a group of motorcycle riders and ready to hear “kickstands up!” or participate in or volunteer to help with a suicide prevention walk, a community conversation, a bowl-a-thon, a dinner, a grief support session, an attempt survivor wellness check workshop, or decide to do a visual reflection on social media from home, or better yet, add some ribbons outside your home, business, school, or congregation, please do something. Join the #Bethe1To: Get involved. Make a difference. Save a life. And say to your friends and family, “Did you see that?”
If you are at risk or anyone you know is, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at
1-800-273-TALK (8255), Veterans and their family members, please press 1 for dedicated support.
Director, Bristol County (MA) Regional Coalition for Suicide Prevention