Suicide and Stigma: Why talking about mental health matters

John Giampaolo — September 12, 2018 — 4 min read
I started working in the mental health field fresh out of college in 1990. Today, I bring more than 15 years of direct services experience to my current role as a member engagement specialist for Cardinal Innovations Healthcare. In addition to telling community members and health providers about our services, I especially appreciate the opportunities I have to develop community-focused solutions that help to encourage the awareness and prevention efforts around suicide.

I’m a survivor of a family member’s suicide. As a child, I watched my oldest brother struggle with mental illness for years. For the most part, people at that time didn’t talk about mental health, and my parents had few resources to turn to for help. I was 21 years old when my brother took his life, so I have a true understanding of what families go through.

Although it’s a difficult subject for most people to talk about, it’s so important that we open up the conversation and keep it going. September is National Suicide Prevention Month, which presents an ideal time to educate and help prevent suicide while also working to eliminate the stigma of talking about it.  

First, it’s important to understand that this is an issue that impacts everyone; it doesn’t discriminate by geography, education, or socio-economics. For that reason, the first step in any awareness program we create is to identify the unique needs of each community. Then we define the mission, vision and action steps required to meet those needs. Finally, we bring together all the stakeholders — public and private sector alike — who can accomplish those goals. 

In many North Carolina communities, for example, we have successfully trained first responders and others to recognize and respond to people in mental health crisis. Among the many things we explain, is that the warning signs for suicide risk can be overt or subtle. Clearer signs include when someone plainly states that they wish to take their own life, or starts giving away prized possessions. Less obvious signs include sudden changes in personality or outlook, such as when someone who has been chronically disengaged begins saying, “Life couldn’t be better!” This could be a signal that the person has come to peace with a decision to take their life.

Training programs such as QPR (Question, Persuade, Refer) and Mental Health First Aid teach people to be clear and comfortable in their language and to encourage those in crisis to talk freely, without fear of scrutiny or stigma. Language, in fact, is an important part of creating a safe and supportive environment. As part of the education, we illustrate how replacing the disapproving question, “You’re not thinking of taking your life, are you,” with the direct, non-judgmental, “Are you thinking about taking your life,” might offer the opening someone needs to feel good about seeking help. 

Surrounding people with support is another key topic of discussion. One training exercise asks individuals to identify their “2 a.m. people” — those trusted friends or family members they could call upon at any time of day or night for genuine, open-minded support. In addition, we make sure they’re aware of the many other resources available.

In North Carolina, for instance, trained professionals available 24/7 will answer the Cardinal Innovations Healthcare crisis line within 30 seconds. People who call 1-800-939-5911 will talk to someone who cares, in a safe environment. They will get immediate help when needed, or a referral to a therapist. 

National Suicide Prevention Month is also a good time to let people know about The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Anyone can call the number, whether they are thinking about suicide or just need a person to talk to at 2 a.m. The Lifeline is available at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or via chat.

During the month of September — and throughout the year — we should share our humanity with those who are suffering. All of us, working together, can build safe places in our communities where people’s needs are understood, respected, and met.

To take part in suicide prevention awareness, check out some of the events happening in our communities:

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, there is help.
  • Call 911
  • Call our 24/7 Access and Crisis team at 1-800-939-5911
  • Call the the 24/7 Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or chat online
  • For people who identify as LGBTQ, can also call the TrevorLifeline 24/7 at 1-866-488-7386, chat online, or text “TREVOR” to 1-202-304-1200
  • For past and current members of the U.S. military, can also call Military Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 (press 1), chat online, or text 838255.
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