One of my roles is work in suicide prevention. In the last two years, I’ve learned there are few families in America who haven’t been touched by suicide — and this is especially true if you live west of the Mississippi. There is a western wave of violence theory; in a nutshell: there are a lot of guns west of the Mississippi.
I’m not getting into a gun debate here. I am going to share a few insights that I hope may help one of you reading.
You’re not alone. Lots and lots of people (most Americans, actually) will experience depression at some point. Some 80% of suicides are related to depression. You may have visited that dark place where ending your life seems more reasonable than sorting out the problems at hand. The good news in all of this is there are lots of resources, and you can remain anonymous if you want too.
People who attempt suicide and survive are not doing so “for attention.” They are hurting, and they need help. Judgments of their behavior do not help. Let’s be thankful they’ve survived.
Talk therapy is gold for suicidal individuals. Sometimes, a person may also need medications to help right the chemicals in their brain. Similarly, sometimes diabetics need insulin. There should be no societal difference in how we decipher the pharmaceutical needs of our physical and behavioral needs.
Community is critical. The most successful suicide prevention program in Arizona pairs senior volunteers with home-bound seniors. These pairs become friends. Now, a person who wasn’t able to leave their home has a friend coming over at least once a week to check in. Just that has been enough. The program hasn’t had a suicide yet.
Suicide, regardless of age, race or sexual preference, etc., happens because of isolation. A person may feel alone in a rural community, or in a bustling high school. Loneliness is public enemy number one in suicide prevention. We are creatures who need friendship.
The largest group of individuals dying by suicide in America are white men age 65 and older by gun. If you have a man who meets these criteria in your life and you are at all concerned, please remove any guns or prescription drugs from the home until you can find him help.
Some great resources:
Teen Lifeline pairs kids with kids to talk about tough things, including suicide.
Your state behavioral health system. It may not be perfect, but they should have resources available for both substance abuse and suicide prevention. These often go hand in hand.
Safe Talk. This is a two day class that trains anyone age 18 and older how to recognize concerning behaviors and make a safe plan. Your municipality should be offering this course.
The Area Agency on Aging. The AAA will have community resources regarding suicide as well.
If someone in your life is hurting and considering suicide, please speak up.
I’d been invited to this small community in northern Arizona because of suicide. Children were dying, by their own hands, and no one knew what to do.
It’s a community, a family really, of no more than 500. There is a health clinic, a school, a Boys and Girls club and a few other buildings in town. The Grand Canyon isn’t far and the plateaus, on early mornings, have antelope and elk and deer and coyotes.
The people organized a medicine walk. We’d gather children and visit six fire keeper homes, each with a camp fire built in their front yards. Upon arrival, the head of household said a prayer over the children, adding sage to the fire. The pungent smoke enveloped the crowd, including the visitors like me on the periphery. We waved the smoke over us, leaning one by one over the fire. We pushed the smoke over our heads and down our backs and to each corner of the sky — sending the healing smoke to the four directions.
We pushed the unhealthiness looming over this community up and out, to be floated away by a high, strong wind.
The prayers and songs reminded the children how valuable their lives are. Bullying by text is the new enemy; kids are being taunted by others. Told to kill themselves. Told they aren’t worthy.
The elders reminded them all otherwise, and that they are all family. The bullied and the bullies are one — and quite literally from one genetic pool made smaller by each death.
In addition to the traditional healing, we will add clinical and educational resources — ways shown to prevent suicide. My wish is that we can provide hope.
I didn’t think when I studied public health a dozen years ago I’d end up spending my days in homeless shelters and learning how to prevent people from killing themselves. Or hotly debating public policy, budgets and political leanings. Happily, here I am, mired in a career that keeps me my curiosities piqued.
Last week, I spent time with researchers from California who were visiting a local homeless shelter. We discussed startling rates of LBGTQ youth who end up in homeless shelters (25%) and try to kill themselves. The basic understanding is kids are not accepted by their families for their sexual preferences, run away, end up in homeless shelters and some feel further isolation — turning to suicide.
How do we stop this? Or the deaths of the 40,000 Americans resorting to suicide annually? I am not certain, but I have a few ideas. It seems most suicides are the result of loneliness. How do we better outreach those feeling isolated and provide the necessary care to give them another day?
We are fundamentally created to live in community — to be around those who nurture our ideas, call us on our bullshit, and make us want to be better. Show me the person who tells you he’d rather be forever alone, and I’ll show you someone with pent-up anger and a proclivity to send bombs via the USPS.
With a bit of time and CDC funding, hopefully we’ll be able to come up with interventions that work. Perhaps something as simple as providing a support group for LBGTQ youth at homeless shelters in Arizona could help. We’ll see. It is one of many exciting projects on my professional plate.
And the photos of my pantry? Sometimes when it feels like I cannot control a thing in this world (See: Isis, those 47 Senators and their Iranian kowtowing, polar bears drowning in the arctic, wrinkles, more wrinkles, the number of children in foster care, those new wrinkles) — I clean and organize. While everything else seems to be spinning, the pantry is clean, meals planned and garden weeded.
Some days, hope and energy for new solutions and bean soup is what we have. This is enough.
Yesterday, I was awake before the neighborhood chickens. I dragged Nelson around the block before heading north and east, driving past Four Peaks just as the sky was beginning to show the first light of day. The saguaros near Roosevelt Lake stood sentry, and by the time I reached the Mogollon Rim at some 6000 feet, a heavy fog clouded the vista. Through the mist, I could make out a few homestead fires on the forest floor, some 2000 feet below. The silver smoke rose in twisting spirals, winding its way upward toward the heavens — and the stream of cars on 260 heading to eastern Arizona.
This drive across Arizona toward New Mexico is forest and brush, high desert and hills. The neighborhoods vary from the odd trailer with a spray painted particle board address sign to multi-million dollar gated golf communities. I drove across several American Indian reservations too, some with flashy neon casinos.
With each curve, wash and bridge, there was a small green sign denoting the place’s name.
The last was apt. I spent 10 hours and nearly 500 miles on the road to reach a small rural community in eastern Arizona facing a suicide outbreak. I arrived midday to join colleagues and city officials to review death certificate data and talk strategy. In cities of all sizes, talking about taboo subjects is more about who you know than what you know. I approached the conversation quietly, listening to folks talk about what they’d heard.
How many? How? Where? Why? Related? Who knows?
Is the word “suicide” being used?
As in many communities, this one has pockets full of the like-minded. There are racial, economic and religious delineations. Each is talking about suicide differently — including, for some, not talking about it at all. Trying to unweave this tangle of small town living is not my mission. Working with local leaders to bring representatives from each of these groups together to talk about what they are hearing, seeing and feeling? That’s the challenge.
And thankfully, I was surprised yesterday by the collaboration that has already taken root among faith and town leaders in the last month. There have been strides toward listening and understanding. There have been public conversations, including prayers around the flagpole, about suicide. People are talking about it, even if they don’t want to use the word.
Stigma hides in the shadows of social issues. It can be found in euphemism and feigned ignorance. It’s threaded through insensitive jokes and is used as a derogation.
There should be no stigma with ending suicide. It is possible. Suicide is not “taking one’s life” or “someone passing away,” but the act of killing oneself — just as some 40,000 Americans did last year. (Ample more died of unintentional poisonings, single car accidents or had a failed attempt at suicide.)
While I was hesitant to attend these meetings yesterday, it was full of hope. I drove away incredibly pleased at the new motivation from many partners to work together to identify local resources for mental health.
– If you have thought about suicide and would like to speak with someone — please call: 1 (800) 273-8255. Your life matters.
As I do a few home repairs in my free time, I am entrenched at work in research on women in prisons. Specifically, I am reading about women who have substance abuse or serious mental illness and become jailed for whatever offense. The research isn’t great, and God knows the US has the highest rate of incarceration internationally.
A few facts that are really bothering me:
Half of all women incarcerated received substance use treatment or mental health treatment prior to being jailed. Half. As in: 50% of those women who are behind bars today have either a mental health disease, or a substance abuse issue. I would guess in other countries, these women would be in treatment rather than prison.
Those who experienced partner violence were four times as likely to engage in sex work and two times as likely to deal drugs.
Those who had a substance abuse issue were seven times as likely to get DUIs and six times as likely to engage in sex work.
I am attending a training next week about women jailed in our community, and how we can do a better job to offer services (mental health, substance abuse, community outreach) to prevent girls from becoming the next wave of women in prison. The solutions aren’t easy. They are drenched in politics, finances and let’s be honest: prisoners may be the least considered in the social justice arena.
But the problem is certainly clear.
Have I mentioned how lucky I am to have this job? That I get to learn and think and brainstorm with some of the smartest policy folks in Arizona? It is fun, challenging and exhausting. And it provides plenty to think about as I’m painting and replacing light bulbs.
I am participating in a veggie challenge at work this week. The idea was to encourage all colleagues to intentionally eat more veggies for five days. Each cup of veggies was scored at 2 points, while a cup of fruit was scored at one. (Couldn’t be easier to follow, right?)
I was shocked at how many of my coworkers at the health department sulked around saying, “But I HATE vegetables.” I am big believer as both a gardener and a cook that if you “hate vegetables,” you simply haven’t had them prepared well. A can of green beans can be soggy and gross, where as beans picked off the vine, sauteed in a bit of butter with almond slices and sea salt? Divine.
And of course, since this was a challenge, I had to win. I am fairly incapable of competing in things and not wanting to be the best. (It’s a sickness.) As such, I figured out ways to super size the portions of veggies my team was eating this week. How could we get in 2-3 cups of veggies at breakfast, lunch and dinner? Smoothies, salads and soups.
My favorite tools for eating more vegetables are the blender and the immersion blender. I like a good spicy punch of ginger and kale and apples for breakfast.
And I never met a blended veggie soup I didn’t love, especially if I had the time to roast a head of garlic to throw in the pot too. (The raspberries were dessert.)
And slowly but surely, I’m getting D to try more veggies too. He adamantly does not like a few, which I can understand, but I appreciate his willingness to at least try others. Last week, to our surprise, he liked lima beans.
There is a new war pending. Well, new to us. Thousands of Syrians are dead at the hands of other Syrians, with both sides likely using foreign-made (and secretly supported) weapons.
War is shitty. It is shitty for the families who are there, whose children will always suffer PTSD and will never grow to be the adults they could have been. Those without constant nightmares. Those who don’t jump and cover at loud sounds. Those who remember what it was like before their neighborhoods were gutted, first by other neighbors, and then by foreign forces. Before they hated everyone involved — that time before the war, when the world was a laboratory for their dreams.
There are Syrians who are dying and quite possibly being gassed by their own government. We are paying attention, the cynical side of me says, because there are so many foreign interests involved in this matter. Not because there are families just like ours but with a different color passport dead and dying from this ridiculous injustice.
I mean, if injustice was truly our motivation, we’d do something about:
Southern Sudan, which is once again in turmoil. One of the newest countries in the world has a perilously fragile government, which cannot protect its citizens from tribal unrest.
Uganda and Congo, where armies of children are kidnapped, given drugs and led into disastrous battles with weapons they can barely lift. Some 5 million Africans have died in World War III. Collectively, we don’t care. When was the last time you heard anything in the news about the Congo? (5 million people is roughly the entire population of the State of Arizona.)
Zimbabwe, where don’t even get me started on the farce that was their most recent election — once again allowing Mugabe to rule. His people starve. His country falls apart by the limbs. But hey, the US is not interested in getting involved.
North Korea, where famine is widespread and folks are encouraged to eat tree bark when their hunger gets too out of control.
In Mexico, where the northern half of the country remains paralyzed due to fear of cartel beheadings. Speak up against the Mexican mafia? Your head will be delivered faster than DHL to the nearest family member.
Or hey, if I was going to get really high on my soap box, if the US wanted to address injustice — how about the 1 in 5 children in our country who go to bed hungry every night? How about the cycles of poverty we cannot seem to break, and the kids who end up suffering as a result? (We choose not to break these cycles. Hunger in America — unlike hunger in many other countries — is not a problem of supply and demand. It is a matter of political will. And hungry kids do not get to vote.)
War sucks. The ramifications will be felt for generations. Our men will die in Syria. Our tax dollars will be used to kill Syrians. Syrians will continue to kill Syrians. The Russians, Chinese and American war machines will continue to be fed.
I’d prefer to feed the kids in all of these countries instead.
There is a convenience store within walking distance of my new office. I can’t quite see it from my desk because of a large, thorny mesquite and clump of date palms. If I could, I’m sure that even in the middle of the afternoon, when temperatures in Phoenix made the distant sidewalk wavy with heat and ozone, there would be a group of folks huddled together in the shade of the store’s red awning.
Most would have $.89 Styrofoam cups full of soda and crushed ice. Some you can smell before you see them, as it goes with living on the streets in Phoenix in the summer. Others have loud, angry conversations with the spirits the rest of us cannot see. Many are missing teeth. A few wear clothing revealing tattoos that have become blobs of ink after years of weight fluctuation, and lots of hard living.
These folks are there in the morning when I stop for coffee on my way in to work. And they are there when I drive past, as the orange sky fades into another pink desert sunset.
In downtown Phoenix, there is a large homeless outreach where many of the city’s nomadic homeless sleep at night. In the morning, they are awoken early, given a basic breakfast and shuffled back outside. Some panhandle. Some find shade in a park to take refuge until they are allowed back inside the shelter. The Big Gulp Group hangs out at the local Circle K.
They watch as the cars come and go first thing in the morning. Folks in khakis and polos and A-line dresses file out of their compact cars inside for a morning hit of caffeine. Their shiny state badges reflect the morning sun. Their cars drip steadily from over-worked air conditioning, leaving tiny pools of iridescent coolant on the pavement.
Rarely do the Big Gulp Group and the employee cohort converse. Those who are filling up before filing up the stairs of the nearby health department keep their heads down, down. The homeless talk to each other but usually do not ask those coming and going for a thing. Both groups seem to pretend the other doesn’t exist.
There is little I know for certain about working in behavioral health yet; however, I do know it is often a matter of genetics for those who end up under the awning sipping a Big Gulp vs. those in corner offices sipping lattes. All of this is determined by some great wheel of DNA luck, spinning some of us to early death and others to high-end long term care facilities as centenarians.
Folks who suffer from severe mental illness die on average 25-30 years earlier, of preventable diseases, than their non-mentally ill counterparts in the community. That means most of these folks are dying in their 30s and 40s of preventable illness.
I’ve been rolling this statistic around for a couple weeks, trying to understand how it can be truth.
I am but one cog in this huge programmatic wheel. One more that punches in, and punches out, and could become an apathetic, ineffective drone – meeting the government employee stereotype. Thankfully, I work with a team of people who are passionate and love their work. They inspire. It feels like we are working on something that could make the state’s health better, especially for those like the Big Gulp Group.
A few weeks ago I spoke at Ignite Boulder 17. My spark was ” V is for Victory Gardens.”
The more I volunteer with hunger organizations, the more I realize this is a policy not supply issue. Rather than tackling the economic and political reasons causing hunger in the US, I am focusing on what individuals can do to pitch in. Planting a garden to supplement your neighborhood food bank’s shelves is one easy way to help feed hungry people good food. If you need help getting your garden started, or finding a local community garden or food bank where your energies would be much appreciated, let me know. I’ll do whatever I can.
As for Ignite Boulder — my platitudes are sincere: a thoughtful team of wacky and creative folk who put this event together. They should be applauded for their community-mindedness and their ability to pack a theater. 850 people, 15 presenters (or so) and oh, so much fun. A great experience!
I attended a community meeting a couple weeks ago for an organization called Hunger Free Colorado. They are the lobbying arm of the Feeding America-fueled food banks in the state. They take direction from the five food bank leaders state-wide on what to lobby with local, state and federal officials to better meet the needs of hungry Coloradans.
As a food pantry volunteer, I was interested to hear about the systemic changes that this organization is working on for the state. I’d noticed more and more families coming into the pantry who were seeking sustainable food assistance. I’ve had this nagging concern the system at hand is failing because our “emergency” food boxes were becoming routine.
Something is obviously broken, and I’m no expert in any aspect of the policial or practical system of getting food to hungry folk. That said, any volunteer would notice many of the families coming to the pantry are stuck in a “job of being poor.” It takes a lot of time to access most basic public health services to keep a family fed. This may include visiting a food pantry or more per week — which is typically an all day affair when you are on the city bus.
If you’ve ever spent a day in a food bank, you realize there are far too many ways things could be better.
For example, how about these statistics:
1/4 of families in Colorado report not having enough food, via a Gallup poll
The typical recipient of “food stamps” (called SNAP in Colorado) are a family of 4 living on less than $12,000 per year.
The application for SNAP, until recently, was 26 pages long. On page 4, the applicant was asked if he/she spoke/read English. Apparently up until then, they were expected to intuitively know what they were being asked.
While more than $500,000,000 has been spent on Colorado’s SNAP and food assistance software system since 2004, it doesn’t work. The state of Maine spent $15,000,000 on theirs and it works fantastically. There is little political motivation here to change what exists, even though it doesn’t work and hunger experts testified to the fact beforehand, “because we don’t want to spend more money.” (To me that’s like not repairing the navigation system in the Titanic because the deck furniture cost too much. The system isn’t sinking. It sunk.)
All this said and done, the average Colorado family is on SNAP for less than 10 months.
It is daunting and entirely overwhelming to consider lobbying political issues, and yet — we are bucket brigading a huge fire that will consume Colorado if we don’t stop to install a fire department instead. (Not my analogy — one I heard in the meeting that I thought was rather apt.) And so, we continue bucketing as fas as we can and somehow muster the spirit and energy to create bigger, better change that stops the fire from starting.
I have to believe the basic steps we — those who don’t need food assistance — can all take, no matter where we live, look a bit like this:
1. Invite a friend over with a similar passion, or grab your roommate/spouse, and visit your neighbors. Go to each door around the block and introduce yourself. Take mental notes. Chances are, 1 in 4 of those houses you visit are hungry.
2. Invite your neighbors over for a potluck/bbq. Make it welcoming for those who can’t bring food, and get to know who these folk are. Chances are, you won’t like them all. And chances are, you’ll really like some of them. With certainty, the type of change I’m encouraging requires having civil conversations with both and recognizing public health issues — like hunger — don’t discriminate.
3. Plant a garden. Harvest it for yourself, your neighbors and your community food pantry.
4. If you can give time, volunteer. If you want to give to the food pantry — give money. They can typically buy 10 times what the average consumer can with the same amount of money.
5. Vote. Talk to local, state and federal politicians about how hunger is influencing your neighborhood. Make it tangible with stories you’ve heard and your experiences. For those in Denver, the way to communicate with such officials can be found here, here and here.