September is National Suicide Prevention Month. Two weeks ago, Fresno County published its suicide prevention strategic plan. The county has been developing this plan for almost two years. During that time, its rate of suicide matched the state’s at about 10 deaths for every 100,000 people, but it wants to bring that number below the state average. Lately, though Fresno isn’t the only county looking at how to reduce the risk of suicide.
One person working on this issue in the Central Valley is Noah Whitaker. He didn’t plan on a career in suicide prevention, but it also isn’t something he’s shied away either.
“Most families don't discuss the topic of suicide,” says Whitaker. “Growing up, that wasn't the case of my household, suicide was discussed quite a bit. My father's father, Jack, had died by suicide at age 53.”
Whitaker’s own father also died by suicide at 53, the same age as his grandfather.
Today, Whitaker talks about his loss openly. He says he wants to bring to light the day-to-day struggles a lot of people go through, and ensure resources exist to save his own life if he ever becomes at risk of dying by suicide.
When his father died, though, Whitaker was still in high school.
“Following the death of my father there were no supports, no resources. Stigma is so prevalently felt that people fear discussion of this topic and they fear supporting people.
Whitaker now works with the Tulare and Kings Counties Suicide Prevention Task Force, a job he’s held for the last ten years. Today, he himself is a resource to families who lose someone to suicide, as a member of the Task Force’s LOSS team.
LOSS stands for “local outreach to suicide survivors.” When someone dies by suicide, their family members are at an increased risk of also dying by suicide. Members of the LOSS team reduce that risk by immediately supporting family and friends.
Fresno County is also in the process of creating a LOSS team, which is one part of implementing their community-based suicide prevention plan. Whitaker also co-wrote the plan.
“What this plan does is it also addresses the concept that somehow, some way, we have to reduce stigma and discrimination against both recognizing mental illness, and when someone struggling with depression or anxiety, making it okay to talk about,” says Dawan Utecht, director of Behavioral Health in Fresno County.
Fresno County’s plan also recommends the continuation of local crisis phone centers, and training members of the community to be a resource in populations at risk of suicide.
While Fresno released their plan earlier this month, Madera County has just begun to look at their own community-based suicide prevention program. Dennis Koch is the director of behavioral health there. While he’ll to look to Tulare and Fresno for ideas, he says it won’t help to copy their initiatives, because their needs are different.
“In Madera here, we have five times as many suicides as homicides. Between 2006 and 2015, we had 36 murders and 193 suicides,” says Koch. “Well, if the murder rate went up by five fold, we would have all kinds of people out in the community. So that's the message we have to give to the community. What can the community do to reduce the rates of suicide?”
Efforts to reduce suicide have also come from the state level.
Stan Collins is a suicide prevention specialist with Each Mind Matters, a statewide campaign. He says the benefit of counties creating community plans is it takes into account their unique situations, rather than focusing broadly on government departments.
“Suicide prevention is really a public health issue, and with that, you need to bring in all members of the community,” says Collins. “But the most important people that we can be bring in our the individuals. The family and friends of the individuals are the ones who are going to recognize warning signs and be there to support that person.”
He says the statewide efforts have been successful, but even with public support for mental health awareness, suicide maintains a lot of stigma and unfamiliarity. That’s why local campaigns and efforts can effectively spread best practices for talking about suicide. For example, Collins says it’s okay to ask someone if they’re thinking about suicide.
“Everything in suicide prevention literature says we need to be talking openly and directly about suicide. And if the answer is no, the person says, ‘no I'm not thinking about suicide,’ which is strangely, a lot of people's fear,” Collins says. “Well what if I ask if someone's thinking about suicide and they’re not thinking about suicide? It’s like, that's the best-case scenario. Now you've communicated to that person that if they ever do have thoughts of suicide, you're willing to go there.”
To be clear, Collins knows that can be a daunting task, but starting that conversation is part of breaking the stigma too.
If you are thinking about suicide, or are worried someone you know is, you can call the national hotline at 1-800-273-8255, or text 741-741.