By Nicole Partnoff
September is Suicide Prevention Month, and for those of us in the behavioral health arena, that means boosting outreach and awareness in the communities we inhabit, love, and serve. We often observe that as a community we are highly attuned to issues when they are at the forefront—when there are events to attend, or something arises in the media, or there is an awareness month to remind us the issue is present. As suicide prevention month ends, I want to challenge you to remember the scope of suicide in our community and our country on a daily basis.
Suicide is pervasive and shows up in places we do not expect—it shows up in our own lives. It shows up in the friend we notice is isolating. It shows up in the wake of someone’s unimaginable pain. It shows up in the struggle of the woman unable to make ends meet. It shows up in the man who fakes a smile and shatters behind closed doors.
Anyone can be at risk of suicide because the feelings behind it—loneliness, helplessness, disconnectedness, loss—are inextricably woven into our shared human narrative. These emotions can become real adversaries for any of us if they go unchecked and unexplored.
With so many affected by suicide, with so many experiencing incomparable loss and grief, we would expect an outpouring of love and support from the community. People have caring hearts, so in many ways we see this, yet it is hard to know how to weave our desire to help in with our daily routines.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7 and our responders work hard to provide life-saving and life-supporting care for people in crisis and emotional distress. We operate in a space, however, where we provide intervention services, as we are only able to truly interact with individuals who reach out to us in their time of need. We are grateful for everyone who has felt safe and strong enough to call and trust us with their most challenging situations and emotions.
When we look deeper into prevention, however, we find it goes beyond services provided. Prevention begins in our own lives, begins with awareness of ourselves, awareness of those who matter most to us. Prevention starts with you and your willingness to open up to exploring your own attitudes. If you pivot and see past your own perspective, what do you see? Can you identify how others might be struggling? How can you help?
We each have a direct line into the lives of the people we love. Our hotline is here to support you as individuals and the community as a whole, but you are the ones on the front lines with people at risk of suicide every day. Teachers, parents, coworkers, friends—your words and actions have power. You are given the ability each day to comfort people who are hurting, to notice changes in their behavior, to connect them with others who can help.
Treating mental health like physical health
I wonder what would happen if we viewed suicide prevention in our daily lives through a lens of “mental health maintenance.” In the same way we tend to our physical health and encourage others to do the same, perhaps we should explore what it might look like to treat self-care activities, connectedness, and openness with the same care. There is an acceptance surrounding physical health issues, arguably due to their tangible nature. Mental health issues, however pervasive, often go unseen. Does this make it harder for us to accept their validity? Does the invisibility make it less real?
Maintenance for our physical health takes very simple forms: implementing healthy habits such as healthy diet, regular exercise, etc. This kind of prevention works because it operates on the understanding these actions can help protect a person from developing an accepted disease or disorder. If we can view our mental health in the same way, would we be able to offer more acceptance and grace to ourselves and each other when we struggle? Would we be more willing to believe these feelings are not indicative of a person having a problem, but rather of a person being human and needing support and care?
As Suicide Prevention Month comes to a close, I challenge you today to shift your perspective and open your eyes to the suffering of those around you. Is there a friend you haven’t heard from in a while? Is there a coworker who sits alone every day at work who might need someone to talk to? Is there a family member you know has been struggling? Is there someone you should check in on even if they seem “ok”? I challenge you to see these things in your own life and start a conversation. You may find someone desperately needs that space to open up and they are scared or unsure of how to approach it. Human connection is a strong, unalienable bond; your kindness and willingness to be present can save a life.
It takes bravery to evaluate our emotions, to open our hearts and look inward with honesty and care. Ownership of our own vulnerability and openness with each other can be our greatest strength. The people in your life and in your community need this show of courage from you.
Suicide prevention resources
“I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. And I will not let what I cannot do interfere with what I can do.” –Edward Everett Hale.
If you or someone you know has thoughts of suicide, please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
To learn more about how to identify signs of suicidal ideation, visit suicideispreventable.org.
If you are interested in learning more about training and education regarding suicide prevention and intervention, or would like to become part of suicide prevention efforts in your community, please contact the Central Valley Suicide Prevention Hotline at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nicole Partnoff is a Data Analyst/Volunteer Coordinator with the Central Valley Crisis and Suicide Prevention Hotline.