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COVID-19 brings new importance to Suicide Prevention Awareness Month

The fear, anxiety and isolation of our time is simply unlike anything I’ve seen in my 35 years working in the mental health space.

Photo by manu schwendener on Unsplash

There’s a second pandemic on the horizon: one that doesn’t involve PPE, ventilators or ICU beds, but requires society to take a hard look at mental illness and suicide rates. We’ve heard experts far and wide forewarn the coming mental health pandemic stemming from COVID-19, and I’ll join them: The fear, anxiety and isolation of our time is simply unlike anything I’ve seen in my 35 years working in the mental health space.

September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, and this year, we are faced with an unprecedented mental health crisis. The fear and isolation of COVID, the disruptions to our businesses, families, children and educational systems, and, of course, the unrest and trauma so present in our communities has pushed mightily on our resilience, our sense of safety and our hope. One unexpected aspect to this unusual place we all find ourselves in is the spotlight it’s shined on mental health. More people are recognizing that we all have mental health, and the importance of supporting mental health throughout our communities has never been more important than it is right now.

In Minnesota, suicide is our eighth leading cause of death – taking the lives of hundreds in our state each year. We should be ashamed at these high suicide rates, but instead, we somehow think it’s still a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps kind of issue, or worse yet, one we are exempt from actually discussing. A complete void of hope is akin to mental starvation. We work hard as a society to prevent nutritional starvation; suicide demands the same call-to-action.

Recognize signs — and build out resources

So how can we help our communities proactively prevent a scourge of suicides? It starts by learning to recognize common signs of those struggling (feelings of hopelessness, withdrawing from family and friends, trouble sleeping and eating, etc.) and building out resources to help. Additionally, we need to target particularly high-risk groups: frontline workers; those who are unemployed; folks experiencing homelessness; Black, Indigenous and other people of color (BIPOC); our youth; and those with a history of behavioral health conditions, to name a few. By taking these steps, we can help ensure everyone in our community has access to psychological support, and that we’re not missing opportunities for early prevention and intervention.

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Achieving whole-community health starts with promoting whole-person health and recognizing that our mental health is just as important as our physical health. One of our behavioral health care system’s most foundational opportunities is to eliminate the silos that exist and strive to see, understand and treat the whole person.

Integrate individual needs

If we want to truly provide the best care and be most effective with our programs and funding, we have to transform our approach to meet an individual’s entire set of needs. Mental illness risk-factors, diagnoses and symptoms are not siloed, and to effectively treat someone, our health care system can’t be either.

Jill Wiedemann-West

This concept is not new to People Incorporated – in 2016 we became recognized as a Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinic (CCBHC). A CCBHC is designed to integrate the needs of our clients.  In many cases, this can occur within the confines of our services, and in other cases it comes from innovative collaborations across organizations and service areas.

If managing through the COVID pandemic taught us anything, it’s the power of partnership. We are, in fact, all in this together, and when we act in unison, our ability to effectuate real impact is unparalleled. If we truly commit our collective energy to healing, advocating, impacting, and educating, imagine how we might impact the unacceptable suicide statistics here in Minnesota and beyond.

Our call to action is simple: to ensure we all do what we can to guarantee that no one is without hope.

If you or someone you know needs immediate help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Jill Wiedemann-West is CEO of People Incorporated, Minnesota’s largest community-based provider of mental health services.

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