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North Hills Monthly

AFSP, Suicide Prevention Month Shine Light on National Crisis

Aug 29, 2019 09:22AM ● By Hilary Daninhirsch

To help educate, advocate and prevent one more person from becoming a statistic, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) was established in the late 1980s, with chapters in all 50 states. In recognition of Suicide Prevention Month in September, we spoke with Colleen Briner, the area director for the western Pennsylvania chapter of the AFSP, about this national crisis.

North Hills Monthly (NHM): What is the mission of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention?

Colleen Briner (Briner): Our mission is to save lives and bring help to those who have been touched by suicide. We do that through research, education, advocacy and support, for those who struggle personally, for survivors, and for those touched by suicide loss.

NHM: Why was it established? 

Briner: It began as a research organization, and it has continued to expand in terms of both support and education. We still maintain a strong research presence. In fact, we are the largest funders of suicide prevention research. Period. That includes the government, everyone.

NHM: Can you share some statistics about suicide?

Briner: The latest CDC (Centers for Disease Control) numbers we have is data from 2017, during which 47,173 Americans died by suicide. It’s the 10th leading cause of death nationally, and in Pennsylvania, someone dies of suicide approximately every four hours. In 2016, we lost 22 people in Butler County and 178 in Allegheny County.

For every person who dies by suicide, there are another 25 attempts. The highest rate is among middle-aged white men, and it is the second leading cause of death for ages 14-34.

Because of the stigma around suicide, we know that it is underreported. Some things also get ruled as an accident, like an accidental overdose, because we don’t know the person’s state of mind at the moment.

NHM: Are there warning signs?

Briner: Most people who take their lives show one or more warning signs, either through what they say or what they do. They may actually talk about ending their lives, even if they say, ‘I’m just joking.’

The warning signs to look for are:

• Changes in behavior or the presence of an entirely new behavior related to a painful event, loss or change.

• Feeling hopeless, having no reason to live, feeling trapped, or unbearable pain.

• Behaviors that may signal risk are increased use of drug and alcohol; withdrawal from activities; becoming isolated from friends and family; sleeping too much or too little; giving away prized possessions; or calling people to say goodbye.

• The other thing is mood: displaying anxiety, depression, loss of interest, or sudden relief or improvement. They feel at peace with having a plan, so you may see this sudden change or increase in mood.

NHM: Are there risk factors for suicide?

Briner: There is no single reason or cause for suicide—it is when a variety of factors come together and overload one’s coping mechanism.

There are health factors like mental health conditions or serious physical conditions that include pain. There are also environmental factors like prolonged stress, stressful life events, or access to lethal means. Additionally, you can have historic factors like a family history of suicide, neglect or trauma in a person’s background or previous attempts. When all of these things converge, or any combination of these things, you can overload someone’s ability to cope in that moment.

While one in four people will experience a mental health condition, most don’t go on to die by suicide. Research has made clear that mental health conditions cannot be the whole story. That said, we know that things like substance use disorders, depression, and anxiety are risk factors. Just like with a heart condition, you know that you have things in your environment or in your life that are risk factors, but that doesn’t mean you’ll succumb to heart disease just because it runs in your family; it means you’re more at risk and have to be aware of these things.

We also know that only two out of five people with a mental health condition seek treatment; we both advocate and work to diminish the stigma around mental health care.

NHM: What are some myths surrounding suicide? 

Briner: One myth is that it is not preventable—we know that suicide is preventable. There are steps and interventions that can help a person get to the other side. It doesn’t mean we will prevent every suicide, but it is preventable.

Another myth is that talking about suicide will make it happen. To not talk about suicide doesn’t help anyone; it’s perpetuating the stigma by not having the conversation.

NHM: Are schools and/or doctor’s offices becoming more aware of the problem?

Briner: Yes—we’re seeing that more and more. We have programs both to train doctors to look for warning signs with their patients, and we have interactive screeners to help identify students who need support. We also have a school-based program called More Than Sad to train teachers, parents, and students how to deal with these stressors, what to look for, and when to intervene.

In 2014, Pennsylvania passed ACT 71 that addresses suicide prevention. School districts are now adopting district policies and procedures for suicide prevention and training all educators in grades 4-12.

NHM: What can a family member or friend do if they suspect that their loved one may be at risk for or is actively contemplating suicide?

Briner: Reach out to that individual, and assume you’re the only one who is going to reach out. And trust your gut. If you think someone is at risk, talk to them in private, listen to their story, express concern and caring, and honestly, ask directly if they’re having suicidal thoughts. Encourage them to seek mental health services. 

We would say avoid minimizing their feelings, avoid trying to convince them that life IS worth living, avoid advice to fix it. If you’re concerned about someone, call the suicide prevention lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). There’s also a text line; for some people that feels less intimidating, and that number is 741-741.

Have the conversation. Watch for the warning signs. Reach out. Seek help. Trust your gut. If you think someone is in an active attempt, call 911.

NHM: How do you reach out into the community to increase awareness?

Briner: Every year we have Out of the Darkness walks as a way of having people support a culture that is smart about mental health and to support those who are struggling. When you’re with others, you realize you’re not alone.

We have the walks in Pittsburgh, Johnston, New Castle, St. Mary’s and in Erie. Normally we have them in September, but the Pittsburgh walk was in August this year because of sports teams’ schedules. In Pittsburgh, we usually anticipate 2,500 walkers at the event to raise funds and awareness.

The Saturday before Thanksgiving is International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day. We host several events in the region. Locally, the event is in Greentree, and it is an event specifically to support those who have suffered suicide loss. Everyone is welcome to that; it is free of charge.

NHM: What are some things that the community or individuals or businesses can do to help support your organization?

Briner: One is to invite us to come speak. We offer a variety of educational programs that can easily fit into any group setting. We’ve done just about everything and can tailor programs to fit different populations. We are always happy to come to your events and have a table with resources.

Another way is to volunteer. You can sign up on our website to do anything from presenting educational programs, to lobbying on Capitol Hill, to handing out water during a community walk. There are a lot of different ways to engage.