What Alabama is doing to combat suicide, and what you can do to help

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With Mental Health Awareness month, and the heavily publicized suicide of Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall‘s wife, only a few weeks behind us, we would be remiss not to keep the conversation about mental health going.

“Often times we only talk about suicide in the case of celebrities… Robin Williams, Kate Spade, Anthony Bourdain, and others. But the fact is suicide affects so many more of us. More importantly, the underlining cause of suicide, untreated mental illness or mental illness not responsive to medications and treatment, affects nearly all of us in some shape or form,” wrote Alabama Today publisher Apryl Marie Fogel. “I don’t know a single person not touched by mental illness — either persistent and severe conditions that plague them on and off throughout their lives, or acute in response to major life changes.”

Which is why the Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Mental HealthLynn Beshear, does not take her job lightly. Since taking the position in 2017, she has been working tirelessly to educate the public, and raise funds for the department to address these issues within the state.

Alabama Today asked her about the departments attempts to combat Mental Health issues, and what friends and family members can do to assist those they know who are struggling with mental illness:

In light of the recent uptick in celebrity and influencer suicides, what is the Dept. of Mental Health doing to combat suicide rates in Alabama?

Stigma is the greatest barrier to care and funding, so ADMH’s role is to acknowledge the elephant in the room and to educate tirelessly. According to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center in Washington, D.C., some risk factors and suicidal warning signs may include:

  • A history of depression, bipolar disorder, or other mental illness diagnoses
  • A serious personal loss or number of losses and defeats taken personally
  • Low self-esteem and self-loathing
  • Social isolation
  • Believing there is no hope of feeling better
  • Chronic alcohol or another drug use
  • Easy access to the means for dying

We often hear about mental health conditions as a cause of suicide, but suicide is rarely associated with any single factor.  More than half of people who die by suicide did not have a known mental health condition, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.  The Suicide Prevention Resource Center offers these myths and facts about suicide:

MYTH: A person who talks about dying by suicide won’t do it.

FACT: About 80 percent of people who complete a suicide express their intentions to one or more persons.

MYTH: Talking about suicide to someone who is depressed may cause them to kill himself or herself.

FACT: Asking someone if they are thinking about suicide does not increase suicidal thoughts, but, in fact, may reduce them.

MYTH: If a person shows improvement after a crisis point, the risk has passed.

FACT: Most suicides occur within three months after the onset of improvement.

MYTH: Suicide usually occurs without warning.

FACT: Many survivors of suicide report they had thoughts of suicide long before their attempt.

In Alabama, a person dies by suicide every 11 hours. In 2016, it was the 11th leading cause of death, with 788 citizens lost to suicide, compared to 543 deaths due to homicide.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals. Call: 1-800-273-8255.

What can friends and family do if they think they know someone who is struggling with a mental illness?

One way to help is to learn Mental Health First Aid, which teaches how to and speak directly and with empathy to someone in need. Mental Health First Aid is an eight-hour course that gives people the skills to help someone who is developing a mental health problem or experiencing a mental health crisis. Be patient and calm while a suicidal or a person in a mental crisis is talking about his or her feelings and listen without expressing judgment and without agreeing or disagreeing with the person’s behavior or point of view.

A safety plan, an agreement between the person and the first-aider, is a way to ensure that the person understands that someone is there for them. A safety plan should include actions to help keep a suicidal person safe, such as contact numbers the person agrees to call if feeling suicidal, for the person’s doctor or mental-health care professional, or a crisis helpline, or for friends and family members who would help in an emergency.

The other very serious issue facing, not only Alabama but the entire US, is opioid addiction. I am the co-chair of Governor Ivey’s Alabama Opioid Overdose & Addiction Council to address this almost overwhelmingly complex issue that involves every sector of society, as well as law enforcement, the medical profession and an array of governmental departments and services.