Holton: Suicide more than a tragic headline - it's a crisis
"Are you thinking about suicide?"
That's a question the call counselors down the hall ask people reaching out to us in distress every single day. And everyday here at Lines for Life, we are here to help — 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
While our nation looks to the tragic deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain as a glimpse into the nation's mental health crisis, perhaps we should look a little closer to home. In 2016, Oregon saw over 770 deaths by suicide — that means we're losing more than two neighbors a day to suicide.
There were over 45,000 nationwide. Suicide in America is a crisis.
Suicide knows no demographic, age, gender or cultural background. The circumstances that lead a person to take their life may be invisible even to close family members and friends. When someone struggles with mental health, they often struggle alone, quietly and without detection.
That is why we have to ask — no matter how uncomfortable the question — whether the people we love are in crisis. We must be brave and ask them to talk. Suicidal people do not want to die; they just want the pain to end. Any crisis line volunteer can tell you, sometimes a simple conversation can ease the pain.
While the nation reels from the tragic news of these two potent stars, whose creativity and transcendent influence caused many of us to pause and ask, "Why?" There is no easy answer to that question. Clearly, success is not a cure.
Suicide rates in the United States have increased over 25 percent since 1999. To tackle this crisis seriously and effectively, we have to rethink and rebuild our policies around mental health, intervention and prevention.
The first step is a comprehensive plan — something we in Oregon do not have.
Next, we need resources to make the plan a reality. Scant funding from federal grants will never meet the need — we need state and local investment in proven suicide-prevention work.
We also need to get serious about gun safety: 50 percent of all suicides are by gun. Partnerships around the nation between gun owners, law enforcement and suicide-prevention advocates are building effective initiatives to help prevent suicide deaths by gun — keeping people safe without provoking battles around the politics of gun rights.
At Lines for Life, calls are rising dramatically — we've seen a more than 50 percent increase in call volume in the past two years. We anticipate over 80,000 calls and texts from across the state this year from people who are suffering with mental health crises.
In some ways, this is a good thing: More people are reaching out for help and have begun to look at resources like ours to provide a path to a healthy life. But there are things you can do:
• First and foremost, if you're worried about someone in your life, have the person call — and if they won't, you call us. We're here to help, 24/7/365. Just call us at 1-800-273-TALK.
• You can also make a difference in ending the suicide crisis. Call your elected representatives and tell them that 770 Oregonians die from suicide — and it must stop. Tell them that you want more resources for mental health crisis support and mental wellness in their next budget, and gun safety legislation that protects people from lethal means. Ask them to fund a comprehensive plan to address prevention at all ages, so that we can get to zero suicides in Oregon.
Together, putting pressure on systems of power and connecting those you love with resources like ours, we can find ways to prevent tragedies from happening to our friends, neighbors, colleagues and family members.
Mental health struggles impact all of us in different ways. All of us, no matter how invincible we may seem, have moments of despair.
Connect with hope by reaching out to Lines for Life: 1-800-273-8255 or text "273TALK" to 839863. Visit linesforlife.org to find out more. Life is hard, and no one should have to do it alone.
Dwight Holton is executive director of Lines for Life, a regional nonprofit dedicated to preventing substance abuse and suicide. He is a former U.S. attorney for Oregon.
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