Advocates speak out on suicide prevention
By Cari Hachmann/ The Portland Observer
With suicides on the rise in Portland, public and mental health officials are stepping up to break its stigma and get more people the help they need.
“Once we can address the underlying mental health concerns openly and without shame, we can encourage those who are struggling to seek treatment,” said Judy Cushing, founder and chief executive officer of Lines for Life, formerly Oregon Partnership, the metro area’s go-to suicide and substance abuse crisis prevention line.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness recently recognized Cushing, and former Oregon State Sen. Avel Gordly, a longtime local African-American leader, for their leadership in mental health issues and suicide prevention.
One way suicides are surfacing in the news recently is through the Portland Police Bureau public information office, which has decided to publicize mental health crisis and suicide-related calls.
In recent reports, what appears to be an ongoing onslaught of mental health crises is actually just business as usual for the police officers responding to the emergencies.
“Sadly, these calls are all too familiar to our officers,” said Pete Simpson, public information officer of the Portland Police.
Since 2001, the number of police responses to suicide calls has risen by 90 percent, according to a current city report on “police interactions with persons in mental health crisis.”
In the last week, among many other mental health calls, 10 people attempted suicide and three men died of self-inflected wounds.
A fourth suicide was 19-year-old male who was reportedly under the influence of drugs and alcohol and playing “Russian Roulette,” with a firearm in a garage.
As the shock from suicide deaths ripple through the community, mental health advocates are calling on people to take preventive actions.
The National Alliance for Suicide Prevention calls for strategies to reduce and de-stigmatize suicides across the country, and Portland city officials and local police are promoting Lines for Life as an alternative emergency number to 9-1-1 for people suffering a mental health crisis.
“People tend to kill themselves for one of two reasons,” one—“unbearable pain” and two—“not wanting to be a burden to others,” said Lines for Life Clinical Director Leslie Storm, a veteran of 23 years in the counseling field and the last six at Lines for Life.
Suicidal victims may also have a mental health disorder, a substance abuse problem, or both, she said.
Lines for Life receives 18,000 to 20,000 suicide calls each year.
“Hopefully people will call us before they call 9-1-1,” said Storm, “9-1-1 would deal with it—but, they don’t have the time. We are a great substitute because of our training and willingness to hang in there with the person.”
With 24 paid staff and 130 volunteers on and off, the nonprofit successfully works to de-escalate suicidal callers about 98 percent of the time.
“Suicide is preventable, said Storm, “but if somebody is determined to do it, they’re not going to pick up the phone and call a crisis line or dial their psychologist—they’re going to do it.”
Some people determined to kill themselves pick highly lethal means like jumping off a roof or bridge because, “Its and easy cheap way to do it,” she said. “You have immediate access. You don’t have to go three days to find a gun or pills.”
October has ushered in Suicide Prevention Month with thousands of people across the country joining an “Out of the Darkness,” campaign to raise funds for suicide prevention programs and increase awareness for what is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States among adults aged 18 to 65.
“Suicide can happen to anybody,” said Storm. She knows firsthand– her husband killed himself 25 years ago in October. After her husband’s death, Storm and her son had not only to deal with the loss of a loved one, but the another dark side of suicide—it’s stigma.
“It’s hard enough on a family when someone kills themselves, they have to go deal with the shame of it as well,” said Storm.
A researcher once told her, “When someone you love kills themselves, your address book changes”. That’s exactly what changes, said Storm. The people you thought would be there for you don’t know what to say.
Storm says she doesn’t know how she and her son would have made it through without attending local bereavement groups and services. “There were so many adults stepping in to help raise my son,” she said.
For a myriad of reasons, not everyone chooses to seek help, but “In a perfect world everybody would,” said Storm.
Lines for Lifes operates five lines with the newest being the Portland City Lifeline (800-273-8255 or 503-972-3456). Others hotlines address suicide, alcohol and drugs, military veterans, and youth (a peer to peer line where youth have the option to text in).
Trained responders follow a model to calm a suicidal person. First they try to make a connection with the individual. They ask for reasons why the person wants to die and most importantly, they ask reasons why the person wants to live. This can take prying, said Storm.
Sometimes just asking simple questions like “Who will feed the cat?” and “Who will take care of your garden,” can snap distressed callers out of their decision.
Storm, a self-described “idealist therapist,” says to prevent rising suicides in Oregon, we as a society need to be more aware of the people in our community.
People need to learn how to recognize suicidal symptoms in others—from people close to you to those sitting on a street bench who may be feeling ill.
It’s important to say are you doing ok? Do you need me to call somebody? Are you thinking about killing yourself?
“Forget a village, it takes a city to raise a citizen,” said Storm.