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Recent suicides show mental health issues can strike anyone, anytime – SIU expert offers helpful information during Mental Health Awareness Month

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May 27, 2022

Recent suicides show mental health issues can strike anyone, anytime – SIU expert offers helpful information during Mental Health Awareness Month

by Christi Mathis

CARBONDALE, Ill. — Even those who seem to have it all – including star athletes and celebrities – can lose their lives to depression and mental illnesses and as May is Mental Health Awareness Month, a Southern Illinois University Carbondale health care official urges people to be aware, stay connected and seek help for themselves and others if needed.

In recent months, several college athletes including Stanford University soccer star Katie Meyer, James Madison softball catcher Lauren Bernett, University of Wisconsin standout distance runner Sarah Shultz have taken their own lives as did country singer Naomi Judd just before she was to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Duke University lacrosse standout Morgan Rodgers, comedian/actor Robin Williams and NFL linebacker Tiaina “Junior” Seau have also died by suicide, exemplifying how depression and other mental health issues can strike anyone at any time, no matter who they are or how their lives are perceived by others, according to Jaime Clark, director of SIU Carbondale’s Student Health Services.

Clark, who holds a doctorate in counseling psychology from the University of Denver, said millions of people around the world struggle with depression and other mental health conditions, but help is available and there are things you can do to help yourself and others.

Many types of mental health conditions

There are a wide variety of mental health conditions, including:

  • Depression.
  • Anxiety disorders.
  • Substance use disorders.
  • Bipolar disorders.
  • Personality disorders.
  • Psychosis. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted mental health around the country, she said. The average percentage of adults reporting symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorders rose from 11% to 41.1% between early 2019  and early 2021, according the National Health Interview Survey and the U.S. Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey.

The increased social isolation combined with the uptick in social media use has shown to be a toxic combination, Clark said.  People feel alone and isolated without real human contact. Social media also can result in two other problems:

  • Cyber bullying. People will sometime be especially cruel through online posts.
  • Unrealistic expectations. Clark said it is easy to compare ourselves to filtered posts and think that other people are living much better lives then we are, without realizing we are only seeing a tiny, “filtered” portion of their real lives.

Clark said early internet exposure for teenagers who haven’t developed the coping skills they need to handle these issues compounds the stress and danger.

Not surprisingly, during the midst of the worst part of the pandemic in June 2020, essential workers reported suffering from increased mental health issues, Clark notes. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 11% of all adults considered suicide in the past 30 days, up from 4% pre-pandemic, and 22% of essential workers contemplated suicide versus 8% of the general population.

The rates for those who started or increased substance use to cope with stress or emotions related to COVID were 25% and 11% respectively.  The gap narrowed considerably when it came to the percentage of people reporting they had symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorders – some 42% of essential workers and 30% of nonessential workers.

When suicide enters the picture

Globally, more than 800,000 people take their own lives each year — one death every 40 seconds, Nine out of 10 people who die by suicide have a mental health condition contributing to their death. For each suicide, there are 25 attempts.

Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. each year and the second-leading cause of death among 10- to 24-year-olds. People who have been bullied are 500 to 900 times as likely to contemplate suicide as their peers.

Researchers have looked at the whys, according to Clark. From the perspective of a suicidal person, a crisis point has been reached, their thinking becomes limited and they are desperate to escape the pain that, to them, has become unbearable.

Clark says there are many myths when it comes to suicide, and she addresses those misconceptions here.

  • Myth: Suicide is inevitable and can’t be stopped.
    • “If people in a crisis get the help they need, they will be at much lower risk to commit suicide,” Clark said.
  • Myth: Confronting a person who may be suicidal will anger them and increase the chances they will act.
    • Speaking directly to someone about suicidal intent opens the lines of communication, lowers anxiety and reduces the risk of them acting impulsively, experts say.
  • Myth: Only experts can prevent suicide.
    • Anyone, including you, can help prevent suicide.
  • Myth: People don’t talk about plans to commit suicide.
    • Clark said studies show that most suicidal people communicate their intention sometime during the week before their attempt.
  • Myth: People who talk about suicide don’t take action.
    • Many people who talk about suicide will attempt or event complete an act of self-destruction.
  • Myth: Once someone decides to commit suicide, nothing can stop them.
    • Suicide is among the most preventable of all deaths and almost any positive action we take may save a life, Clark said.

Clark notes that there are a number of other health, historical and environmental factors that can also play a major role in mental health and well-being, including:

  • Serious or chronic health conditions such as cancer, leukemia, rheumatoid arthritis, and others.
  • Severe and/or chronic pain.
  • Serious head injuries.
  • Family history of suicide.
  • Family history of mental health conditions.
  • Childhood abuse.
  • Previous suicide attempts.
  • Prolonged and/or severe stress, or extremely stressful life event.
  • Ready access to lethal means of suicide.
  • Exposure to other suicides/contagion factor.

Signs to watch for

Everyone can play a part in helping lower the suicide rate and save lives, Clark said.

“We need a culture where everyone knows to be smart about mental health,” she said, noting that just two in five people with a mental health condition actually seek treatment.

If someone suffers a broken arm or gets hurt in a car accident, they are quick to seek medical treatment. Yet if they are having emotional or mental health concerns or crises, they hesitate to get help, she said.

“We need to make mental health just as much a priority as physical health.” Clark said. “People need to seek professional treatment, get evaluated, discuss treatment options and find what works best for them.”

She offered some warning signs to watch for in friends and loved ones, including:

  • Changes in mood, especially becoming depressed, apathetic, enraged, irritable, impulsive, acting humiliated, anxious or agitated.
  • Changes in behavior, including increased use of drugs or alcohol, insomnia, acting recklessly, withdrawing from activities, isolating from family and friends, giving away possessions.
  • Looking for ways to kill themselves, or talk of suicide or death, being a burden to others, feeling trapped, unbearable pain, having no reason to live.

What to do?

If you become concerned about someone, how can you help?

Reach out and talk to them in private, listen to them, express concern and tell and show them that you care, Clark suggests. Don’t be afraid to ask them directly if they are having suicidal thoughts and encourage them to seek mental health services. She said to avoid minimizing their feelings, trying to convince them life is worth living and giving them advice on how to ‘fix’ everything.

“If you think they are at risk, stay with them, secure or remove lethal means and seek or escort them to mental health help,” Clark said. “This can be done by taking them to the local emergency room or by calling for emergency help.”

For emergency help

Call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK or text the Crisis Text Line 741-741 for help,  or dial 911 for emergencies. On campus, Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) 

provides mental health treatment and referrals for students and can be reached at 618-453-5371. SIU also offers faculty, staff, students and family members the opportunity to submit referrals for any students they are concerned about through Saluki Cares.

Helping ourselves and others

On a daily basis, there are things we can do to help ourselves and others improve mental health, Clark said.

Examples include:

  • Seek and provide family and community support.
  • Work on/help others with problem-solving skills.
  • Provide a supportive, inclusive environment for those around us.
  • Get involved with extracurricular activities, family, things of interest.
  • Pursue your cultural and religious beliefs.
  • Limit use of/access to alcohol, drugs.
  • Restrict access to lethal means, including firearms, for those who may be at risk of suicide.
  • Get enough sleep.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Eat a healthy diet.
  • Learn to manage stress effectively.

“If these suicides have done nothing else, they’ve shown us that depression and mental health issues can truly affect anyone, but help is available,” Clark said. “Stay connected and remember that virtual communication and social media don’t replace real connections. People benefit from being heard. Seek professional help for yourself or others if you need it.”

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