Ellen Eggert stands at the front of a Tehachapi auditorium in a tie-dyed t-shirt, sweatshirt tied around her waist, salt and pepper hair loose at her shoulders. “First of all I want to thank all of you brave souls who came here tonight,” she says. Then she stops mid-sentence and reaches down to take her shoes off. “I’m sorry, my feet are sweaty, do you mind?” Audience members giggle as she throws them behind her.
More comfortable barefoot, Eggert jumps into the matter at hand. “How many of you in this room have known someone who’s died by suicide?” she asks. Of the dozen or so people in the room, almost every one raises a hand.
Next, she asks: How many of you have considered suicide? One man raises his hand. “Thank you,” Eggert says. “It takes a lot of courage, and chances are there’s more.”
Eggert would know. She works with Kern County Behavioral Health and Recovery Services as a project supervisor and head of its crisis intervention hotline. And three decades ago, she attempted suicide herself, something she partially blames on bipolar II disorder that was diagnosed later in life.
She tells the audience that because of her illness, she thought she was worthless. “My depression told me, the day I die, my family will dance,” she says. “I believed it. And that’s what depression does: It’s a liar and a thief. And it doesn’t have to be a mental health depression, it can be a situational depression, it can be all sorts of things.”
On her wrist, she’s tattooed the word “hope,” as well as a semicolon, symbolizing there’s more to her story than her attempt.
Emotions are high tonight, like for one man, who has a tough time believing that guns—like those locked up in his home—are used in more than half of all suicides.
“There’s no one in that household that can get to that gun,” he says, arguing that it could never happen in his house. “I know what you’re saying, and I believe what you’re saying,” Eggert responds, but: “Our kids are so much smarter than we are.” In some cases, smart enough to find those guns.
This early September presentation is called Question, Persuade, Refer, or QPR, a nationally renowned suicide prevention training organized by the county, Adventist Health Tehachapi Valley and the Stallion Springs Police Department. Eggert has run QPR trainings hundreds of times, for groups like communities, police departments, and college students. “The beauty of it is it's pretty simple,” she says, “and it basically pinpoints the question: Are you thinking about suicide?”
The method says, if you observe warning signs, like your neighbor’s son withdrawing socially or talking about dying, you ask him that question directly. But for many, it’s the hardest part of QPR to swallow. Won’t it embarrass him, you might wonder, or anger him? Will he even give a straight answer? Eggert says you’d be surprised.
“People won't come to us and tell us because of stigma and taboo and judgement, but people want to be asked about suicide,” she argues. “If you do it in a caring, non-judgmental way, the majority of the time, they will tell you if they are or if they aren't.”
Plus, Eggert adds, what’s worse: Embarrassing someone, or missing out on an opportunity to save his or her life? She tells the auditorium she once even asked the question of a woman standing in line near her at the grocery store. “I knew she went home and told her husband she ran into a ‘Looney Tune’ at the grocery store and laughed at my expense,” she said, “but I could sleep that night because I knew no one else was going to ask her.”
Next, according to the QPR method, if someone you ask about suicide does acknowledge they’ve been considering it, try to persuade them to abandon the attempt, then refer them to professional help. Studies have shown QPR trainings increase awareness and reduce stigma around suicide.
In running programs like this, Eggert doesn’t draw just from her own attempt. She also lost two brothers and two cousins to suicide. It’s these and other horrific tragedies that led her to a career in the field of mental health. In her free time, she also runs a non-profit for suicide survivors and their families that hosted the annual Stomp Out Suicide Walk in Bakersfield last Saturday as part of National Suicide Prevention Month. “I can't bring anybody back, but if I can help one family after their loss or prevent one suicide, then I have found some good out of some tragedy,” she says.
More good is needed. In 2018, 121 Kern County residents died by suicide, marking a 25 percent increase since 1999. According to an Adventist Community Health Needs Assessment, the suicide rate in the Tehachapi area is 50 percent higher than the county’s, and it’s more than double the state rate.
Earlier this summer, Adventist Health Tehachapi Valley opened a new behavioral health department to the public. “We started with, I want to say, about 17 visits at the end of June, and by the end of August, we were at 85 visits for the month,” says Teri Strahan, therapist and department supervisor.
That need is why Police Chief Gary Crowell in nearby Stallion Springs held a suicide prevention symposium in July, then helped organize Eggert’s QPR training in September. In July, he estimates around 100 people showed up, in their tiny town of 2,500. “I do believe that with our small community that generally you’re going to be affected in some way or know someone because we are so small,” he says.
Indeed, QPR audience member Chris Frost says the region was devastated by the suicide of a Tehachapi high school student in June. A pastor in Tehachapi, Frost says he wants to be better prepared when asked about suicide. “I’ve had tons of Bible College training, Seminary training, and still don’t feel fully equipped to deal with this,” he says. “Honestly, we didn’t talk about it in school very much.”
Tehachapi resident Carolyn Aranda also found the QPR training empowering. She connected with the idea of compassion and reaching out to people in need of hope. She just wishes more community members had come. “I think a lot of people are afraid to come and listen about it in case they find out that they know someone that’s going to commit suicide,” she says.
Ellen Eggert knows there’s stigma around talking about suicide. She’s used to small turnouts for events like this, and she says she’ll come back as many times as it takes to reach the community. Even though, she acknowledges, talking about suicide is to surround herself with the very tragedy that upended her family, and almost took her life. “I have to compartmentalize. I have to put my grief and my loss over here and then be able to do this,” she says. “But that's what also gives me my passion to be able to do this.”
That passion comes right back to her from the community. She estimates over 700 attended her organization’s Stomp Out Suicide Walk earlier this month, including her family, who flew in from all over the country.