How Gun Control Can Help Stop Suicides

When people who oppose gun control don’t want to say, “Hey, yeah, I think that we should allow ordinary citizens to own ballistic weapons without so much as a background check,” they don’t do that. Instead, they say, “We shouldn’t focus on gun control – we should focus on mental health.” It’s a lovely political pivot from a group of people who don’t want to actually focus on things which will stop gun deaths.

Related: They then do less than nothing to help people with mental illness.

I’ve attacked that argument before, but now I’d like to add to it: Gun control measures – and specifically Red Flag laws – can help stop suicides.

What is a “Red Flag Law”?

A “Red Flag Law” – also known as an Emergency Risk Protective Order – is a formal court proceeding. They vary from state to state but have the same characteristics: If a person is making threats or found to be a danger to themselves or others, someone (such as a family member or police officer) can petition the Court to have an individual’s guns temporarily removed from their possession. They’ve been promulgated as an effort to stop mass shootings, but the data thus far shows that they are more beneficial in the fight against suicide.

Limiting Access To Deadly Means Stops Suicide

Multiple studies and historical experience have proved it – if you limit someone’s access to the means of suicide, you can reduce suicides. And that is precisely why Red Flag laws are so important for reducing suicides. If crafted appropriately, a red flag law can result in the removal of a gun from someone who may hurt themselves with it.

So, yes. Here’s an area where we can help mental illness – but it’s via sane gun control measures.

Red flag laws are relatively new, so the research on them is somewhat limited. But, from what’s available, they work. For example, take a look at the experience of states like Indiana and Connecticut, which enacted red flag laws relatively recently:

“In Indiana, after the enactment of the law [in 2005], we saw a 7.5 percent decrease in firearms suicides in the 10 years that followed,” Kivisto said. “We didn’t see any notable increase or decrease in non-firearms suicide.”

“And so when we looked at it from 2007 and beyond [in Connecticut], [gun suicides] decreased by 13.7 percent,” Kivisto said.

This furthers the idea that access to deadly means can help control for suicide.

Suicide is a massive societal problem, one which belies simple solutions, involves multiple areas of public policy and will require significant investment to truly tackle. That being said, some small laws can make a big difference, and reducing access to suicidal means can do just that.

The Mental Health of our LGBTQ Friends

We celebrated National Coming Out Day last Friday, and it gave me a few things to think about. As we all know, this world is hard enough. The times we live in are more interconnected, more stressful and more difficult than they ever have been, and I do think that the current state of our world is adding to our rising rates of mental illness and suicide.

So, imagine being someone who so many in society say is wrong.

I’m a straight, white man. This comes with many societal advantages. And let me be clear, I cannot imagine how difficult it must be to be a sexual orientation that is different.

But numbers don’t lie: It’s a harder life. A quick look at the statistics:

  • 28% of all LGBTQ youth said they felt depressed most of the time (in the past 30 days), compared to 12% of non-LGBTQ youth.
  • When compared to non-LGBTQ youth, LGBTQ youth are:
    • Twice as likely to feel suicidal.
    • Four times as likely to attempt suicide.
  • Over the course of their lifetime, 30-60% of LGBTQ people deal with depression – 1.5 – 2.5 times as straight individuals.
  • These issues are largely impacted by perceived support and social stigma.

So, what can we do to help individuals who identify as LGBTQ? A few things. First, remember, all language counts. If you show bias towards one group, individuals are far more likely to perceive you as biased towards another. Don’t be that person who uses bias and then jumps in with, “But I have a gay friend!” Don’t show bias in your language. Don’t use derogatory terms to discuss anyone. Language counts. Language reinforces stigma and stereotypes. Use appropriate pronouns. Use language that is kind and respectful. And just…don’t be an ass.

Second: Show your support. You don’t know who is struggling or who is desperate for someone to talk to. One study which was bouncing its way around my Facebook feed showed that an LGBT individual who found a supportive adult could see their risk of suicide drop by 40%. Be that one person. And be so explicitly. Yeah, post something to your Facebook page about how you support LGBT people and you’re a safe person to come out to. Is it gonna get anyone to come out to you? Maybe. But, more importantly, someone who is LGBTQ will see it, and will appreciate it. They will know that you value them as a person. That you believe in their dignity and basic human rights.

Third: Support policies which humanize LGBTQ people. In most places in Pennsylvania, you can be fired or evicted for being gay. That’s madness, and laws matter: When gay marriage was equal in only some states, studies showed that LGBTQ people had better mental health and lower rates of addiction when they lived in states where gay marriage was legal. Again: PUBLIC POLICY MATTERS. It makes a difference! Support your LGBT friends by supporting candidates for office who support human dignity for all.

Others who are better versed in this subject have written about it, and I encourage you to read more about how to help millions of Americans feel loved and safe. I can’t imagine how hard it must be to be a minority in America – particularly today, given that the President is a racist, xenophobic monster who stirs up hatred at anyone he can find. That being said, I remain convinced – now more than ever – that this is the moment to show our friends – all of our friends – the love and respect they deserve. Be that person. Be one of the people who tells our friends that they are loved. You may save a life.

The Hope and Sadness: Out Of The Darkness Walk

With one exception, I’ve had the honor of speaking at every Out Of The Darkness walk which has occurred in the Lehigh Valley in the time I’ve been a State Representative. Since I began publicly discussing my struggles with depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation, my role has expanded, and I’ve MCed the event for the past few years. I came back from this year’s event a few minutes ago, and I wanted to discuss it.

First and foremost: Man. It’s really, really tough. People walk around with shirts and team shirts and mottos and anti-suicide tattoos and teams of people and you just feel their pain. There are sweet dogs everywhere.

I always have a tough time – particularly during the Honor Bead ceremony, where you introduce family members and attempt survivors – and that just breaks you. You read these stories out loud of people with life and love and potential, and they are gone. This year, I had the honor of reading the Honor Bead ceremony with Congresswoman Susan Wild, someone I’m proud to call a friend. As many of you likely read, Congresswoman Wild lost her long-term partner, Kerry, to suicide, and has lead a very public fight for suicide prevention and mental illness. I cannot imagine how hard it was for her.

And I’m not gonna lie, I feel terrible feeling emotional. I’ve struggled with depression, and I have been suicidal, but I’ve never attempted suicide. I’ve lost people I’ve known, but never a dear friend or someone I love. And you walk around this event – people come with shirts and signs of their loved ones – and you can’t even imagine their pain.

Please understand, I am not looking for comfort here. I get why it’s hard. I just don’t think my pain compares to those who walk for someone they love. And I don’t expect it to, either.

The one story I don’t think I’ll ever forget was this:

That…yeah. It was hard.

Here’s the dichotomy of the event though, and I suppose it’s more a reflection on the dichotomy of the human experience. It was still, for all the sadness and grief, a beautiful event.

First of all, they raised over $115,000. YAY!!! Oh, you can go here to donate. And you should.

Second of all. It’s not all sadness. It was stories of hope. People who survived and turned their life around. An army vet who survived addiction and multiple attempts to stand on that stage in honor of the 22 veterans who die by suicide every single day. People who walk to remember, and who find each other. I kept watching people talk to Congresswoman Wild and say thank you. But there was a real feeling of community there.

As I said in my brief remarks, everyone who attended and walked was brave. We all know what a prominent issue suicide is: 47,000 died in 2017, and more than 1.4 million attempts. And yet, still. Silence and stigma. Every step that was taken, every dollar raised – that’s a little crack in the darkness. I’ll take that.

So, despite the sadness and pain of an event like this, you have to find hope. It can be a struggle. It can be emotionally and physically draining. But it was such a beautiful event to participate in. People found hope, found each other. And found an awful lot of puppies. Seriously, that really helped. The puppies.

I won’t lie and say I’m fine – it was a hard event to run. Speaking personally, there’s a sense of burden there. You want to do the best job you can, and you want to let people know that those of us in power are listening. And that we share their pain and want to help alleviate it.

As always, thanks for reading. Please leave any thoughts below!

Stigma, Shame & First Responders

My mental health and legislative worlds frequently come together, but an article and what happened yesterday really made me blink.

First, the good news. At a hearing yesterday, the Pennsylvania House Veterans Affairs & Emergency Preparedness committee moved a bill of mine. HB1459 would give first responders more mental health resources. It would require trauma and mental health training, create a peer to peer mentorship program and mandate the creation of a toll-free hotline for first responders who are struggling with mental health issues.

I feel like legislation like this is more important then ever. Why? Stories like this, which report on the NYPD’s ongoing mental health and suicide crisis, and the unwillingness of some police officers to seek mental health help, despite the fact that they feel the need to do so:

In a new report, the Department of Investigation’s Office of the Inspector General surveyed officers who retired in 2016 and found that 25 percent of them reported going through a period of emotional stress, trauma or substance abuse that caused them to consider getting professional help.

But more than a third of those officers did not end up seeking assistance, according to the report.

Half of them expressed fear that the department would find out about their decision to seek support.

So, what do we do here?

First, there are internal things that I think the NYPD can do. Chief among them? Work to change the culture and attack stigma by sharing stories of successful police officers who have experienced mental illness, sought help, and thrived.

Furthermore, the NYPD must do whatever it can to stress the confidential nature of their programs. According to the report, 50% of people surveyed were worried about the department finding out about their illnesses, 45% of negative labels, and 39% afraid of being put on a modified assignment. As the NYPD notes, an “extremely small number” of officers do wind up having their weapons taken away, but they are given those back upon successful treatment. Treatment is confidential, except in cases where the officer in question may present a danger to themselves or others.

The second is broader: We need cultural change at a society wide level. When we discuss the importance of stigma when it comes to mental health, this is why. Stigma is more than just how people look at the mental ill, its how we look at mental illness within ourselves. Clearly, as cases like this demonstrate, a culture of machismo and an overabundance of self-reliance can kill. For reasons like this, we clearly must do a better job of reminding people that there is no shame in seeking help, and that in many cases, its the only way to lead a happy, healthy and productive life.

How To Support A Friend Who Lost Someone To Suicide

It goes without saying that when someone you care about loses a person they love to suicide, you want to do everything you can to support that person. That being said, survivors of suicide loss endure an array of emotions: Guilt and loss, fear and anger, confusion and resentment.

During that experience, you want to do whatever is necessary to help your friend through their trauma. But you want to do so in a way which is most supportive of them and respects their complex emotional needs.

That’s a tough balancing act. On one hand, you want to be there for them – checking in on them, calling/texting, asking if they need anything. On the other the loss can be exceptionally painful, and you want to respect the other person’s space while still making sure they know you’re there.

Walking that line can be difficult. Here are some tips on how to do it.

1) Have realistic expectations: Your friend is undergoing the worst trauma and pain of their life. You cannot make it all better. All you can do is be supportive and caring. Make sure you remember that in all of your interactions with your friend. When my friend lost her husband, I gave myself two goals: Be there for her, and make her laugh with the occasional terrible joke. If you can make a wounded person smile, even for a moment, you’ve done a good deed.

2) Check for professional advice: The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has a great blog entry on how you can support someone who suffers a suicide loss, and their tips are extremely valuable. Among their advice: Be patient, don’t attempt to empathize (unless you’ve been through a suicide) and read up on suicide loss. Alternatively, if you have access to one, check with a therapist or other professional to get guidance about how to best approach the situation.

3) Follow their lead: The “how” of talking to someone who lost someone to suicide can be difficult. Follow their lead. If they look like they are looking for humor, engage. If they don’t want to talk, but appreciate your calls, tell them about your day. If they are too depressed to move, wrap an arm around them, bake them a cake and watch TV with them. Take your lead from the person in question and understand how emotionally volatile of a time it is for them.

4) Be explicit with your friend: “I will text you every day to say hello, see how you are doing, and ask if you need anything. If you want me to stop, say the word and I will.” Tell your friend anything and everything you are prepared to do. Be specific: Offer to cook meals or do the laundry. Just make sure the person knows you are there. Even if they don’t seem like they appreciate it, I bet they do.

5) Don’t ask questions: “How did they die? Was it suicide? Were they depressed?” It’s a human impulse, but the answer is absolutely, positively none of your damn business, unless your friend decides to tell you what’s happening. Then, and only then, is it appropriate to ask questions, and even then, use restraint and caution. Remember, your goal is to alleviate your friend’s pain, not get your own curiosity satisfied.

6) Don’t spread rumors: Shut. Up. Keep what you learn in confidence. Don’t discuss anything you haven’t been specifically cleared to discuss. In some cases, your friend may want other people to know. In others, they may desire privacy. Whatever your friend wants, respect it. Remember, it’s not your story to tell.

7) Check with people closer: If you’re confused about how to behave – should you call/text, do they want flowers, should you cook a meal, etc – check in with someone closer. There may be closer friends or family in a less emotionally fragile state, and if that’s the case, you can get some additional guidance. When my friend lost her husband, I texted her best friend to ask if it was alright for me to be regularly texting and checking in. The friend confirmed, and I continued.

8) Don’t stop when the immediate crisis is over: In the immediate aftermath of a suicide, the world swarms. Then the funeral happens, and too many people forget. Don’t be that person. The wounds will last a lifetime – don’t let go of your friend. Don’t stop checking in. The pain will remain – make sure your support does as well.

For those of you with additional experience in this realm, I really welcome your feedback for all of us. If you’ve endured such a loss, what did your friends do right? What did they do wrong? What did you want the world to know that they didn’t?

Thanks for reading. I hope if was helpful.

More Than Stigma: Shifting the Nature of the Conversation Around Mental Health and Suicide

Advocates for suicide prevention and mental health often talk broadly about “the stigma” which surrounds mental illness and suicide. Many of us – myself included – believe that if we can just get more people talking and thinking of mental illness, if we can have people discussing their issues with depression, anxiety, addiction and more without shame or fear, we can help to put an end to this epidemic. I firmly believe that this is the case.

I also know its not enough.

And that’s where the conversation around public policy, resources and taxation has to come into pay.

I happened to catch a fascinating column on mental health the other day – I obviously can’t find it now, that would be too easy, but the column made a great broad point: Ending mental health stigma is like cutting holes in a wall, but then there’s nowhere to go because our system of mental healthcare is so broken in this country.

Many of us concentrate our efforts on stigma for a couple of reasons. I think it’s one of the most important things that we can do. But let me expand on the second part of that sentence: That we can do. People do need to know it is okay to seek help and to treat themselves. They need to know that these issues are real, powerful and can kill you. But, as any studies have shown, individual conversations are the best way to break mental health stigma. A face to face talk can make a huge difference in that area. That means that, without question, the most important person to ending mental health stigma is you.

Second, it’s the easiest.

Making society-wide change is really hard, of course. Particularly in areas where colossal interest groups are at play. I’m an elected official – theoretically one of the people who makes state-wide decisions in Pennsylvania – and I fully understand just how difficult this can be.

And the simple truth is that we must make systemic changes to help reduce rates of mental illness and suicide.

From a mental health and suicide perspective, there’s an awful lot that needs to be done. This includes increasing access to mental health care, increasing the number of mental health care practitioners and addressing the mental health care practitioner shortage, reducing costs, enforcing parity in insurance care, reducing access to deadly means of suicide and more. And that’s to say nothing about the major societal problems that we face which contribute to mental illness and suicide, including improving housing options, strengthening the social safety net, increasing the minimum wage, making housing more affordable, etc.

Many of us tackle stigma because we can’t get at these issues. And stigma is something we can control.

So, what does that mean? Should you stop talking about mental health stigma? Hell no. Of course it’s vitally important, but it’s important in more ways than you think, because the more you discuss mental health, the more pressure you can bring on policy makers to address the fundamental inequities and gaps in our system which allow for mental illness to run so rampant. Keep fighting.

But make sure you fight in a public policy realm, in addition to addressing individual changes. Tell policy makers and elected officials that you expect them to do more to address rates of mental illness and reduce suicides. These issues require government intervention, and that requires public pressure. Please help make this happen.

 

Medication is Not Addiction: A response to a misinformed column

I spent way too much time on Sunday on Twitter, joining a chorus of voices who were yelling at David Lazarus, a columnist or the Los Angeles times. Lazarus wrote a column in which he discusses his own experience at trying to withdraw from anti-depressants. The title of the column? “Hi, I’m David. I’m a drug addict.”

Yep. Only went downhill from there.

Ironically, Lazarus discussed important issues like the over prescribing of medication, failure to adequately warn patients about side effects and discontinuation syndrome. These are real, important issues. They merit serious, thoughtful consideration. Instead, Lazarus decided to call millions of Americans (like me) drug addicts. He esoterically wondered “Who am I, really?” about taking anti-depressants. It’s a tragic, misguided view, one which reinforces stigma and will prevent people from getting help they need. And the language used by Lazarus is just appalling. If I’m a drug addict, so is everyone else who uses medication to survive for any other condition.

Really, this is just an ugly article.

I wrote a response which the Los Angeles Times did not accept, citing their policy to not run op-eds in response to other op-eds. Fair enough. My response, then, is below.

Don’t believe crap like what Lazarus decided to spew. Medication can be a vitally important part of any therapeutic regimen. It has saved thousands of lives.

Let’s say you are a diabetic and require insulin to live. One day, a friend tells you to quit insulin. Stunned, you ask why. Your friend responds: “Well, you can’t live without insulin. That makes you a drug addict.”

That’s absurd, right? Taking a prescribed medication in recommended doses doesn’t make you a drug addict. That makes you a responsible adult.

But the above scenario would never really happen, right? No one would ever claim that taking medication to treat diabetes, Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s would make you a drug addict.

But, apparently, such an understanding does not apply to the millions of Americans who take medication to manage mental illnesses. To Americans like me.

For eighteen years, I’ve been diagnosed with a major depressive and generalized anxiety disorder. I’ve been suicidal. The medication which I take, in conjunction with therapy and lifestyle changes, has saved my life.

About five years ago, I made the decision, as a Pennsylvania State Representative, to start discussing my battles with depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation. I did so in response to the stigma which surrounds mental illness. Depression isn’t a weakness. It can’t be willed away. Taking medication doesn’t say anything about one’s character any more than having heart disease indicates a moral failure.

That’s why I was so disheartened to read Mr. Lazarus’ column: It took serious issues like over-prescribing  and discontinuation syndrome – issues which deserve thoughtful, reflective discussion – and conflated them with drug addiction. To be sure, medication is not a panacea. It often takes months, if not years, to find appropriate medication and dosage. Prescribers sometimes fail to appropriately monitor their patients. Side effects are real and dangerous. All of these issues demand thoughtful consideration and conversation.

However, such problems exist in virtually all areas of medicine, and no one would reasonably or seriously suggest that we should stop prescribing scientifically proven medication to people in need. Yet, that is exactly what some suggest when it comes to mental health.

Mr. Lazarus refers to himself as a “drug addict” for taking anti-depressants. Yet, he also discusses being a diabetic who takes medication for chronic Type 1 diabetes. Strangely, he declines to refer to himself as a “drug addict” for requiring insulin to manage his blood sugar levels. I wonder why.

We should never, ever be so foolish as to conflate appropriate use of anti-depressants with drug addiction. To do so makes people who take anti-depressants to live sound like sound like a caricature of a drug addict, desperate for their next hit of smack…or, as I like to call it, the pills which help me not want to kill myself every morning.

Contrary to what some believe, anti-depressants are not happy pills which whisk you away on a cotton-candy cloud, carrying you to Lollipop Island to float with gumdrops all day long. What they do is help you control symptoms, improve your mood and make other forms of change – like psychological therapy and lifestyle changes – easier to obtain.

Taking medication for mental illness doesn’t change who you are. It allows you to be who you are.

Far too many Americans have ignored their own minds and medical advice, choosing to try and “tough out” spells of depression, to “man up” or ignore these painful and rehabilitating symptoms. Too many Americans have powerful fears that taking anti-depressants makes you weak. This stigma must be crushed and rebutted in the same way intelligent society has pushed back on those who attack vaccines.

Anti-vaxxers and those who deny the positive impact of anti-depressants are flip sides of the same coin: They seek to use pseudoscience and stigma. Science has given us incredible tools which can be used to our great physical and emotional benefit. To ignore those tools, or to somehow wrap their use in shame, serves only to pull us into a darkness which we should have left behind decades ago.

The nearly 1 in 5 Americans who suffer from mental illness – including me – deserve to have our challenges discussed with respect and a comprehensive understanding of mental health treatment options. This discussion is simply incomplete without discussing the importance, effectiveness and risks of medication. No one who takes an anti-depressant is a drug addict, any more than a person who takes Prilosec for heartburn is addicted to not having their chest feel like is on fire.

The facts are stark. Depression rates are skyrocketing, rising sharpest among today’s youth, who have seen nearly 50% increases in rates of depression. 47,000 Americans – and 2,000 in my home state of Pennsylvania – died by suicide last year, an increase of 34% since 1999.

We need serious, sober conversations about mental illness and how to treat it. There are many concerns with anti-depressants. These are valid, serious concerns which must be addressed. But these conversations must occur using words and arguments which shatter stigma and support science. To do otherwise does an incredible disservice to those of us who suffer.

 

The news isn’t completely terrible: 3 Reasons to be hopeful in our ongoing mental health crisis

I’ve written a lot about just how bad things are in the universe of mental health. Rates of depression and anxiety illness are rising, particularly among our youngest and college students, and suicide rates are hitting highs which haven’t been seen since World War II. This, of course, is terrible.

Still, life could be a lot worse when it comes to the mental health universe. Here are three reasons to be hopeful in the long-run.

Stigma is decreasing

According to multiple articles, the stigma which surrounds mental health is slow decreasing, but particularly for those who are younger. Many in a younger generation view seeking therapy and getting help as normal – as such, they don’t hesitate to do so. All of these articles note – correctly – that will still have a long way to go before we can consider stigma to be truly “defeated,” but it is worth noting and celebrating that significant progress has been made. Furthermore, the slew of celebrities who have openly discussed their own struggles has furthered humanized the issue and made others realize that suffering from mental illness doesn’t have to hold you back.

The Affordable Care Act is Helping People Get Treatment

The ACA – or Obamacare – has been subjected to no shortage of controversy. However, some things about it are indisputable. One such example is that more people are getting the mental health treatment that they need and deserve – and that they are getting better. ObamaCare required that all individual and small coverage plans offer mental health care, and that the coverage of mental health be similar to what it was for physical coverage. This alone has helped to increase the amount of plans which offer mental health care. The percentage of young people without health insurance dropped from roughly 22% (2013) to 13% (2016), and since young people were more likely to first experience a mental health challenge, this meant that more people had access to the care that they needed.

There’s more, of course. States which expanded Medicaid saw sharper decreases in mental illness than states which hadn’t, resulting in more care, more treatment and a lower financial burden.

There is no doubt: ObamaCcare has helped those with mental illness.

Social Media Has Tremendous Potential For Good

Alright, so I’ve been a bit harsh on social media in my time as a blogger in the mental health world. Just a bit. But it really isn’t all bad. Social media has the potential to be very helpful – and indeed, has been very good for mental illness…if used properly.

Social media, even if it’s just digital, can help promote a sense of connectedness. Sufferers of various mental illnesses can connect with more people and find the assistance that they so desperately need. If it’s users are mature enough, they can provide goals to aspire to and help to push creativity. By keeping users abreast of social opportunities and events, it can help maintain social relationships.

Indeed, for all of the negative press which social media has gotten on mental illness, there is at least one study (which examines adults, not just college or high school students) which shows that it can be positive and result in less psychological distress.

All kidding aside, I think social media can be good for metnal health…but requires literal mental training that I don’t think we possess as of yet. People have to use social media to supplement their social life, not supplant it. They need to recognize that it’s a curated form of life, not real life. And they need to remember that they have plenty of things to feel joyful and proud about, and to not feel jealous of what others put on their newsfeeds. That can be a real challenge, to say the least!

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts. What else has been good news in the world of mental illness? Let us know in the comments below!

 

Means Matters: Why conversations about reducing access is so important – with a very personal example

I came across this very insightful article on three methods of suicide prevention the other day. If this is an area of interest to you, I highly recommend you check it out. Anyway, one of the many things the article discussed was the importance of reducing access to deadly methods (or means) of suicide. The article made some points which I’d barely or never heard. In Sri Lanka, suicide numbers absolutely tanked after common types of pesticides (which were also common suicide methods) were banned. Suicide rates also dropped in England and Wales in the 1960s when domestic gas was switched to a formula with less carbon monoxide, and when more restrictions were placed on sedatives in Australia during the 60s and 70s.

From the article:

Those early observations are backed by a growing body of research that counters the popular misconception that people who attempt suicide once will keep trying, through whatever means necessary. The reality is that those in the grip of a suicidal crisis often can see only one way out—and if that route is barred, they’re unlikely to turn to another, says Jill Harkavy-Friedman, a clinical psychologist and vice president of research at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) in New York City.

In my legislative career, I was able to get an amendment passed to a bridge reconstruction bill which required that the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation consider adding protecting fencing to suicide hot spots during reconstruction or bridges or other high points. This was done for the exact reasons listed above – means reductions.

It seems as if every community has that place which is known for suicides – in Allentown, my home, it was the 8th Street Bridge. We lost one person every 1-2 months from that location. Then, during reconstruction a few years ago, protective fencing was added – and we haven’t lost a person at that spot since.

This is why there are so many legislative initiatives to reduce gun access for suicidal people via Red Flag laws. I don’t want to get into a debate about gun control, but the science on this issue is clear: Having a gun in a home is more likely to lead to suicides.

For those of you who are lucky enough to not understand, on an emotional level, what it is like to be depressed or suicide, allow me to try to explain. When you’re depressed, you are more than just sad or tired or miserable. Depending on your exact mood or the exact moment, you lose the ability to think clearly. Furthermore, depression isn’t a constant state – like any other emotional feeling, it ebbs and flows. There are moments it is manageable, and then, ten minutes later, you forget your wife, your kids, your loved ones, your career, your successes…you just want to end the pain. And in a bad moment, with the right triggers, yeah, you may grab whatever is easily accessible. If deadly means are available (and guns are the deadliest – 85% of all suicide attempts with a firearm result in a completed suicide), that may be the moment where you end your life.

My worst moment was in college. It was Freshman year, a few weeks back into my 2nd semester. I was a few weeks into anti-depressants for the first time in my life (which can be a moment where suicide risk increases – something I wish I had known then) and had just been rejected by a girl (appropriately on her part, as I wasn’t in a mental state in which I could handle a relationship at the time). The first semester had been a disaster for me – it resulted in an explosion of depression and anxiety attacks, my first time seeing a counselor, and my first experience with anti-depressants.

The night I got rejected by this girl. It was two in the morning or so, and I called my ex-girlfriend (who I was very close with, and in a complicated relationship with), crying. And in my hands, I had a bottle of my new anti-depressants and a glass of water. And I asked her why I shouldn’t end my life then and there.

I feel terrible about that moment. It was such an unfair burden to put on a 16 year old young woman. But she handled it gracefully and like someone with maturity well beyond her years, and she got me to put the pills down, and as I recall, refused to get off the phone with me until I got into bed. I think she actually had the number of our campus safety but couldn’t find it at that moment. And I think I fell asleep with my phone in my bed that night.

The purpose of this story isn’t just to thank my ex (though, as long as I’m on the subject, thanks very much!), but to prove a point. That moment was the worst in my life. That’s the closest I’ve ever come to suicide: Staring at a bottle of polls, and a glass of water, and wondering.

And I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if I’d had a gun. Because getting through that moment – and it was just a moment, a bad one, but not one to be repeated – gave me my life. My wife, my kids, and decades of joy and hope.

Means matter. Access to deadly means matters. And efforts to reduce suicide must incorporate means reduction. Doing so can help get a person through the most difficult moment in their life. And that may save a life.

 

 

Suicide Prevention Hotline appears set to get a three digit number

Some ridiculously good news out of the federal government (yes, really) when it comes to mental health:

The Federal Communications Commission plans to move forward with establishing a three-digit number for the federally-backed hotline.

Thursday’s announcement from FCC Chairman Ajit Pai signals the culmination of one of the final legislative priorities of former Senate President Pro Tempore Orrin G. Hatch of Utah.

Pai said that he intends to follow a staff recommendation for establishing a three-digit dialing code, likely to be 9-8-8, to reach the network of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, currently 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). That program is funded through the Health and Human Services Department.

Why is this so important? Two things.

First is the obvious: It makes it easier for people to get the help that they need. A 1-800 number – even one with “TALK” in it – can be too easy to forget. The Suicide Prevention Hotline is a critical resource for people who are in crisis. Elevating that number, and making it easier for people to call, can help to direct people to the care that they need. This is particularly important for someone who is in a state of mind where suicide seems to be an option. A 1-800 number may be too difficult to dial. A three digit number – one like 911, which has been drilled into our brains since we were kids – is easier.

This is even more important because of the frequent conversations around suicide prevention whenever there is a high-level suicide. In the aftermath of one of these tragedies, there is often an increased effort to make people aware of this number. Think about it. How many times have you heard someone say words to the effect of, “You’re never alone. If you or someone you love is in crisis, call 1-800-273-TALK.”

Let’s keep in mind that this number is a national resource, and the volume of calls it receives is reflective of that. The national hotline will actually route your call to the nearest available center. For information on how many calls your state hotlines received, you can check out this report, which has statistics from July 2018- December 2018. For example, during this period, there were 30,346 calls made from Pennsylvania residents. For added context: In a three month period, .0023% of the state’s 12,810,000 residents called. Folks, that’s not a small number.

Second, and maybe more importantly: This decision elevates the national conversation about suicide prevention. Only important causes get three digit numbers: Emergency services (911), directory assistance (411) and local services (211) are the only ones in Pennsylvania. Making suicide prevention a three digit number will help to push suicide prevention to the top of the public agenda, and this is something we absolutely, desperately need to do. This is a good decision, and I cannot wait to see it finalized.

Any thoughts you want to add? Let us know in the comments below!