Editorial: Bringing awareness to mental health challenges so many face

Published: 10/25/2019 8:18:01 AM

Most Americans know baseline first aid protocol for someone having a heart attack: Call 911; begin CPR if the person is unconscious (about 100 to 120 compressions per minute). If an automated external defibrillator is immediately available and the person is still not responsive, follow the device’s instructions.

But what about if someone is contemplating taking their own life?

A recent study released by the Centers for Disease Control found that suicides have risen by more than 30 percent in most states since 1999. In 2017, 1,400,000 people attempted suicide. Of those, 47,173 were successful, making it the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, according to a report by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Specific statistics create a robust picture of the epidemic: Men die by suicide 3.5 times more often than women; the rate of suicide is highest in middle-age white men in particular. White males accounted for more than 69 percent of suicides in 2017, according to the report.

In one way or another, suicide touches all of us.

Keith Sherman, a Navy veteran from Heath, laid bare the heartache of losing a loved one or friend to suicide in a moving interview published in Saturday’s Life and Times section. Over the course of his 26-year career, Sherman estimated he has lost dozens of friends. Veterans are particularly vulnerable, with suicide rates about 1.5 times that of nonveterans, according to a Veterans Affairs report that was released last month.

When he was stationed in San Diego, a coworker jumped off the Coronado Bridge, “And I had to drive over that bridge every day and think about him,” Sherman said.

While teaching at Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) School in Maine, a close friend and fellow instructor confided in him that he was contemplating suicide, but asked him to keep the disclosure quiet. Back then, there was a stigma within the ranks about suicidal ideations, Sherman told reporter Andy Castillo. He honored the request; his friend killed himself soon after, leaving behind a wife and two children.

“One suicide after another. Our doc. Our corpsman. Our medic. My friend committed suicide. Friends who I’d worked with in the boat team committed suicide. It seemed like an epidemic,” Sherman said.

Teens and young adults are also vulnerable. Locally, Franklin County had the highest annual rate of youth suicide in the state, at 10 deaths per 100,000 persons, based on a study by the state Department of Public Health that looked at data between 2011 to 2015.

While these statistics are disheartening, there is hope.

In recent decades, the stigma surrounding suicide has seemed to erode. Within the military and in schools, there’s been an increased effort to raise awareness about mental health and suicide. A forward-thinking initiative by the National Council for Behavioral Health — a national program that’s being piloted locally — seeks to curb these rising rates. Starting in December, juniors at Four Rivers Charter Public School will learn about mental illnesses and addiction by participating in the country’s teen Mental Health First Aid (tMHFA) pilot program.

Four Rivers was one of 35 schools selected to participate in the initiative by the council in collaboration with Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation. The tMHFA is an idea that originated in Australia and is being adapted. Often, Bill Fogel, the Greenfield school’s psychologist and the mental health first aid instructor, said that those who are in a mental health crisis go to friends for help. No one wants to lose a friend or loved one to suicide. But not everyone knows what to do if the situation arises.

The program, hopefully, will equip youngsters to respond in a helpful way.

“Teaching us prepares us for the reality, which is intense and quick, where people go to their friends before their parents,” said Skylar Craig, a senior at the school who helped design the initiative’s curriculum in a focus group last year. Currently, the pilot program is being evaluated by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

We commend Four River students’ for participating in this very important program and hope to see this initiative have a ripple effect on other generations and population groups. Through their effort, it has the potential to further erode the stigma surrounding suicide and bring awareness to the mental health challenges that so many people in our society silently face every day.

Friends are on the frontline of America’s suicide epidemic.

If you or anyone you know is experiencing thoughts of suicide, please reach out for help immediately. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Call at 1-800-273-8255, or dial 911.

Greenfield Recorder

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