The message from the Minnesota Department of Health this week is that the number of adult suicides in the state has increased. The latest numbers are from 2011, and show a 13% increase from 2010.
This is bad news. Since I started paying more attention to suicide news after my son killed himself in 1995, I have been aware of an increased effort by suicide prevention organizations to educate the public about suicide, its warning signs and prevention measures we can take. The problem is, that often these organizations are preaching to the choir — people like me, who have a sad connection to suicide.
Unfortunately, over that same period of time, I have not noticed a similar effort by organizations that command a very large audience, have large budgets, and could take the lead in education of the general public — schools, police, public health organizations, and health care organizations.
After Jake died, John and I offered to bring in speakers at the two high schools who could talk to the students about suicide and mental illness and its prevention and treatment. We were turned down by Winona Senior High, and our offer was accepted at Cotter High School, where our son was a freshman. That session was sparsely attended by parents and students.
When last year, tragic student suicides shook the student body at Winona Senior High, the school held a presentation on suicide in the school auditorium. There was a smattering of parents, teachers and students in attendance. The message from the speaker was no different from what it I had heard 17 years earlier, and it did not speak to the kids, who didn’t know what to do with the fact that they were now grieving the suicides of classmates.
Although suicide and mental health are reportedly addressed in tenth grade health class at the public high school, general education about mental health and suicide usually occurs after the fact, when the opportunity for prevention has passed.
Health care organizations offer various talks and screenings at specific times of the year about common diseases. September is Suicide Prevention Month, October is Breast Cancer and Prostate Cancer Awareness Month, February is American Heart Month, and so on. Of course it takes more than one month of education out of the year to make a difference in mortality rates from suicide, cancer and heart disease.
It is usually up to privately-funded and organized groups to really bring awareness to the public of the steps to be taken to prevent illness, and they are very good at it.
It used to be that women died of “female troubles.” When I was a child, I wondered what trouble I could possibly be in that would kill me. By the time I got breast cancer, in 1997, I was much more aware of the warning signs and diagnostic measures available to me than my mother ever was. I found the cancer early enough to have a good prognosis for survival.
I owe my awareness to educational programs and marketing funded by the American Cancer Society, a manufacturer of anti-breast cancer drugs, Estée Lauder, and the Susan B. Komen Foundation who pioneered the breast cancer discussion beginning in the mid eighties. They had to overcome resistance and squeamishness on the part of the general public, and sometimes the medical community, but they and subsequent groups have changed the death rates from breast cancer.
If talk of breast cancer makes some people squirm, think how difficult it is to talk about suicide and mental health — things that even churches have been know to denounce as the work of the devil.
But if we are to prevent suicide, reverse this alarming increase in the suicide rate, we must overcome ignorance about mental health, we must embrace education about mental health in our schools (not just tenth grade; that’s too late), our health care and public health organizations, and law enforcement. Mental health should be as easy for a doctor and patient to discuss as breast and prostate health. Children should know the warning signs.
Think of the incredible strides in breast cancer diagnosis and treatment that have been made since 1990, when it became a national discussion. Think what advances we could see in diagnosis and treatment of mental illness if we could have the same sort of national discussion about suicide, bi-polar disease, schizophrenia and other mental issues.
Suicide is preventable. Mental illness can be treated. Let’s reverse the upward trend in suicide statistics. Let’s start talking!
For information on warning signs and prevention, go to www.save.org, or if you are in a suicide crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.