By Stephanie Welch, Executive Officer
Council on Mentally Ill Offenders (COMIO)

Most of us have been touched by the tragedy of suicide. We may have lost someone close to us or been moved by the loss of someone we may have never met.

As a mental health professional and advocate, I often refer to suicide as the ultimate negative consequence of stigma. When the majority of suicide completers have visited their primary care physician in the year before suicide – yet did not ask for help or receive it – stigma’s darkest tentacles are at work, impacting the individual in need and the system that has failed.

Stigma hurts and it can do more damage than a mental health challenge can.  Illness, grief, loss and trauma all go unaddressed because people are ashamed, embarrassed, scared, doubtful of need, and simply unable or unwilling to ask for help.

I know this from personal experience. Even while I was getting treatment for an episode of severe depression as a young adult, I still was afraid to tell my doctor about my suicidal thoughts.

I was anxious that my freedom would be taken away and that I would labeled “crazy” and locked up in a hospital forever. I also did not want to frighten my loved ones.

Thankfully my attempt forced an important conversation about getting serious about getting help and that help worked. Stigma can silence us when we need to speak out the most. When it comes to suicide, the most important rule to remember is – It is OK to talk about it.

Suicide Prevention Week is Sept. 5-11, 2016, and during this week individuals and organizations around the country will broadcast the message that suicide can be prevented, and aim to reach as many people as possible with tools and resources to support suicide prevention.

Here at CDCR, we can take this opportunity to better educate ourselves about the role we can all play in preventing suicide. Here are a few basic things you should know and that you can share with those around you:

Suicide can be prevented. When a suicide happens, those left behind often experience deep shock. Even if they knew the person was struggling, they may not have expected suicide would be the result.

However, many people who find themselves in a suicide crisis can and do recover. Suicide can be prevented; you can help by taking the following actions:

  • Know the Signs: Most people who are considering suicide show some warning signs or signals of their intentions. Learn to recognize these warning signs and how to respond to them by visiting the Know the Signs website suicideispreventable.org. (Editor’s note: This site is better viewed on a CDCR computer using a browser other than Internet Explorer 9, such as Chrome.)
  • Find the Words: If you are concerned about someone, ask them directly if they are thinking about suicide. This can be difficult to do, but being direct provides an opportunity for them to open up and talk about their distress and will not suggest the idea to them if they aren’t already thinking about it. The “Find the Words” section of the Know the Signs web site (suicideispreventable.org) suggests ways to start the conversation.
  • Reach Out: You are not alone in this. Before having the conversation, become familiar with some resources to offer to the person you are concerned about. Visit the Reach Out section of the Know the Signs web site (suicideispreventable.org) to identify where you can find help for your friend or loved one.
  • Prevention Works. Many people who feel suicidal don’t want to die. If they can get through the crisis, treatment works. There are programs and practices that have been specifically developed to support those who are in a suicide crisis. The Suicide Prevention Resource Center hosts a registry of 160 programs, practices and resources for suicide prevention. You can learn more about them by visiting https://www.sprc.org/strategic-planning/finding-programs-practices.

Help is available

CDCR’s Peer Support Program (PSP) is available to all employees with over 1,200 team members statewide. You can talk to a peer who will listen, answer questions, offer resources and provide support in a confidential environment.  Contact your local PSP team or visit the site at: https://www.cdcr.ca.gov/Wellness/psp.html.

The Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255- TALK) offers around-the-clock free and confidential assistance from trained counselors. Callers are connected to the nearest available crisis center. The Lifeline is also available in Spanish, and for veterans or for those concerned about a veteran, by selecting a prompt to be connected to counselors specifically trained to support veterans.

To find local services and supports, visit the Reach Out section of the Know the Signs resources page where you will find California statewide and national resources as well as links to resources in your county: www.suicideispreventable.org.

Add your voice to World Suicide Prevention Day

Sept. 10, 2016, is World Suicide Prevention Day. This is an opportunity to join millions of others around the globe to focus public attention on preventing suicide through diverse activities to promote understanding about suicide and highlight effective prevention activities. Find out more about joining this collective call to action by visiting www.iasp.info/wspd/.