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The NSPA Blog

Suicide Prevention Month and the Heart of Advocacy

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Posted on September 17th, 2018 by Teri Dreher, under Patient Advocacy, Take Charge

Last week,we looked into the amazing work being done at SMHRFs

This week, we want to bring back  the conversation surrounding mental health in this country. Mental illnesses affect millions of Americans. In fact, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in five Americans will experience a diagnosable mental illness in a given year. Still, it’s no secret that mental illnesses are incredibly stigmatized. Society views people experiencing these health issues as both dangerous and comical, somewhere between a demon and a clown. When these stigmatizations are internalized, something happens to the judged population. They experience both self-stigma, the belief that these conceptions about themselves are true, and also recognize that if they come forward with their diagnoses, they will inventively be judged harshly and unfairly.

Over the summer, Americans were shook with the passing of a couple very high profile suicides. Celebrity suicide deaths, in combination with the opiod epidemic that continues to sweep the country, make it clear that no one is exempt from the havoc that can be caused from mental illness and addiction. And they are connected. People experiencing mental illness are almost twice as likely to experience issues with substance abuse. Could it be, in part, due to the stigma associated with their disorders? That answer is certainly complicated. Placing causality on one single factor is never advised. Instead, let’s examine what we know for sure about mental illnesses.

The facts

Behaviors caused by mental illness vary from condition to condition. Some symptoms are mild, and can be treated effectively through medication and/or talk therapy. Others will take serious medical treatment for the rest of an individual’s life. Still, some overarching themes run through each condition. At the heart of the matter, mental illnesses are extremely isolating. Unlike breaking a wrist or having high blood pressure, mental illnesses tend to cause people to become more reserved and withdrawn. Even through states of mania, withdrawal is common before and after. Unlike stigmas suggest, people who experience mental illness are very rarely violent. Truly, if violence does occur, it most likely is directed at themselves. The horror films depicting the ‘violent psychopath’ have totally misrepresented the disorders they portray. So if society says that having a mental illness is bad, and the core of the disorders make the people experiencing them feel isolated and withdrawn, how effective is it to tell people with mental illness to simply reach out for help? Moreover, how responsible is it?

A change in perspective

After the deaths of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade, my Facebook and Twitter feeds filled up with the Suicide Prevention Hotline phone number. While it’s certainly important for people having suicidal thoughts to know what resources are available to them, something about it felt wrong to me. Maybe it was because it seemed like the same people who ascribed the word ‘crazy’ to situations that had nothing to do with actual mental illness were the same ones saying, “hey, here’s a phone number for help. Also, I’m a friend who’s here for you, so reach out to me.” Maybe it was because it felt like it pushed the responsibility of treatment seeking onto the very people who are least likely to reach out BECAUSE of their illnesses. Either way, it made me wonder what a better response to the attention on suicide would look like.

Moving forward

Working for an organization that specializes in patient advocacy and coming from a communications background, I felt like the people imploring others to reach out for help needed a new perspective. Advocacy is all about helping others who, for one reason or another, cannot fully advocate for themselves. This seems like a fitting example. Shouldn’t people who feel mentally healthy, if they truly want to help, instead reach out themselves? Further, shouldn’t they take into account the way their words and actions push to further stigmatize mental illness? Changing our perspectives is, at the very least, worth considering.

Consequences of stigma

As discussed, mental illnesses are extremely problematic for society, and so are the consequences of not getting treatment.  They cost Americans 190 billion dollars per year. Mood disorders are the 3rd leading cause of hospitalizations for adults in the country. And, individuals experiencing them are at an increased risk of chronic illnesses. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in America. Even more concerning, suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death in Americans age 10 to 14, and the 2nd leading cause of death in Americans age 15-24. This is a real problem, and we can and should do better.

Moving forward

September is National Suicide Prevention month. What steps are you taking to address this issue?

As always, feel free to reach out with any questions or comments on this blog post.

With over 36 years of clinical experience in Critical Care nursing, home based health care and expertise as a cardiovascular nurse clinician, Teri is well acquainted with the complexities of the modern healthcare system. She has served as a nursing leader, mentor, educator, and consistent patient advocate throughout her career in some of the best hospitals across the country. Her passion to keep the patient at the center of the model of nursing care led her to incorporate NShore Patient Advocates, LLC in 2011, serving clients throughout the northern suburbs of Chicago.

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