Taking Steps to Prevent Suicide
Though difficult to talk about, suicide is a growing public health problem in the United States. It is also one of the leading causes of death in young people, which makes it especially pertinent to the work we do at Mercy Home.
September was Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, a time dedicated to raising awareness around an often stigmatized topic. This month focuses on providing the public with facts and information around suicide, as well as spreading hope and supporting those affected by suicide. By having resources needed to discuss and prevent suicide, we can save lives.
In our Community Care department, this is something our coworkers are particularly aware of as the population they serve often has risk factors for suicide, such as mental illness, substance use, job loss, relationship issues, or financial challenges. To make sure that our coworkers are aware of what to look for, Community Care Manager Cynthia Velasquez put together a presentation with information about warning signs, risk factors, safety planning, and statistics from Illinois and the nation.
“Being informed is definitely important,” she said. “Our kids that we work with usually have multiple risk factors.”
In addition to the risks listed above, the societal factors around suicide can also play a part in rates of suicide going up or down. For example, the way the media is currently portraying suicide can affect those already prone to suicidal ideation.
“Access to mental health treatment and support has also been limited…with waiting lists constantly growing and fewer available resources in the community.”
Knowing which members have a history of suicidal ideation is key, and our coworkers stay alert to the things members say and their moods.
“If a member is talking about a change in sleep or mood or energy, that could be a sign,” Cynthia said. “[Or] if they’re saying things like ‘I’m a burden to my family, I’m a burden to my friends, I’m a burden to you all’ or feeling hopeless … those are some of the things we look at.”
If a member has a history of suicidal ideation or risk factors for suicide, our coworkers create a safety plan for them and continue to assess further. One of the ways they evaluate risk is whether the member has a plan and whether the plan is a realistic one. For example, if a member knows about pills in the home and plans to take them, that is considered a tangible plan that could be executed. But if someone says something like they plan to steal a bus and drive it into Lake Michigan, that is less realistic and therefore at lower risk, though still at risk.
One of the most important steps Community Care takes when determining that one of their members is at risk of suicide is speaking to the parents if the member is a minor or speaking to a roommate or another person living with an adult member (with consent). They are able to discuss signs to look out for with this person. They also recommend restricting the means to carry out a suicide, such as removing items like knives and firearms and putting them in a place where the suicidal person cannot access them.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also provided unique mental health challenges. Though not all the data about the relation between suicide to the pandemic has been released, Cynthia explained that there has been an increase in mental health conditions that are not being treated. With less contact with others, there are fewer people to notice warning signs of mental health decline or suicidal ideation. This is something they saw in Community Care during the period when drop-ins had to be discontinued for health and safety reasons.
Access to mental health treatment and support has also been limited by the pandemic, with waiting lists constantly growing and fewer available resources in the community. Some places in Chicago have a year-long waiting list for mental health services, meaning that those experiencing mental health struggles have to wait for care.
These are things that our Community Care coworkers are aware of—and that is why they are hyper aware of the risks our members face.
“Mercy Home also contracts a psychiatrist that works with our young people and members to make sure they have access to any treatment needed. “
“Suicide ideation is something that happens, but if we’re not really paying attention to it, we can miss it,” Juan Medina, the Manager of Community Partnerships and Marketing, said. “I think what Cynthia has done for Community Care [through] a number of these trainings is to keep that [awareness] muscle alive and for us to be attentive to that area because it could be really easily missed. It’s important to be a little more aware than usual.”
Collaboration throughout the Community Care team is also key. They have created an infographic to share with their members to make sure they know how to access resources and make a safety plan when it’s needed. The care managers also work together to make sure our members are receiving the best care.
Mercy Home also contracts a psychiatrist that works with our young people and members to make sure they have access to any treatment needed. Juan explained that it is especially important for our members to have access to resources and support before any mental health struggles escalate.
“We [want to] do a lot of preemptive work before things get to a place where they’re experiencing a lot of emotional pain and begin to turn to that unhealthy coping mechanism of suicidal ideation or attempts,” he said.
At the recent Community Care Scholar Retreat, our coworkers spent time talking about mental health with our scholars and giving them resources to things like the 988 crisis line and apps for meditation and journaling that will help with mental health challenges. This is especially important because our coworkers can’t always get a full picture of what’s going on with a member.
“Of course, we don’t know everything [that’s going on], and that’s one with Covid that has been difficult, the span when we were just remote,” Cynthia said. “We’re trying to get back with touching base with them and just checking in seeing how they’re doing and having touchpoints, whether that’s doing an event or on our Facebook or just a call or drop-ins. That has been great because with drop-ins we’ve been able to get eyes on our members that we haven’t had a chance to see when we were remote.”
One of the most important measures for preventing suicide is staying informed, both Cynthia and Juan agreed. As coworkers at Mercy Home who work in a helping field, it is especially important for us to be aware of the risk factors and resources. It’s also important to be aware of the language used when talking about suicide. When someone uses the term “committed suicide,” the implication is that someone committed a crime, and this reinforces the stigma around mental health issues. Instead, it’s better to say that someone died by suicide. Though that might seem like a little thing to some of us, it can go a long way to changing the way we think and speak about suicide.
And in addition to being aware of the signs in our young people and Community Care members, it’s also important to be mindful of signs and risk factors in our friends and loved ones.
“Suicide is something that impacts all ages and races,..it doesn’t discriminate…”
“Suicide is something that impacts all ages and races,” Juan said. “It doesn’t discriminate. It’s always very important to keep that in mind and check in with people. If we see something’s wrong, never be afraid to ask someone how they’re doing.”
It’s also okay to ask someone directly if they are having thoughts of suicide, Cynthia said.
“You are not putting the idea in their mind,” she said. “It’s actually an intervention in itself [but] that’s something that people shy away from.”
If your or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, it’s important to know that you are not alone and help is available! Some of the resources that our coworkers use are included below and can be shared with your loved ones who may be struggling.
Crisis Text Line: https://www.crisistextline.org/
988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline: https://988lifeline.org/