A National Epidemic
Claiming the lives of nearly 50,000 Americans annually, calling suicide an epidemic is by no means a stretch, and it’s certainly not a silent issue. Even for those people who haven’t been touched by suicide personally through close-knit friends or family, it’s likely that they can recall well-known public figures who have taken their own lives — fashion designer Kate Spade, chef and writer Anthony Bourdain, and musician Keith Flint might come readily to mind. And for those within the LGBTQ community, the National Alliance on Mental Illness has found that rates of suicide are drastically increased.
It’s undeniable that tackling the problem of this scale will require a multi-faceted approach across various fronts, but proactive steps are already being taken. In Southeast Michigan, organizations like the nonprofit Kevin’s Song are working to prevent suicide on a local level. From Jan. 23 through 25 the organization will be hosting its fourth annual Conference on Suicide. Themed Advocacy in Action this year, Kevin’s Song representatives say that the conference is geared toward “unified, collaborative coalitions of community resources.” And this year for the first time, the event will include an educator-focused School Summit to tackle youth suicide. Kevin’s Song Vice President and Co-Founder Gail Urso said that the Conference is open to anyone with an interest in suicide prevention across all careers and walks of life.
“One of the purposes for the conference, in the beginning, was to draw attention to the problem, because suicide is a public health crisis and some people say it’s an epidemic. But also to put it out in the general public so that people would know that this is something that a lot of people confront and deal with,” Urso said. “We have just found over the years that there is a great interest from the general public, from professionals, educators. And we just keep deepening the level of information, research, expertise that’s presented at the conference.”
Urso co-founded the organization with her husband John in honor of their son Kevin, who died by suicide. She said that the conference, which has drastically increased in popularity in recent years, stemmed from the fact that many existing suicide prevention organizations weren’t collaborating as much as they could. She added that besides the potential networking opportunities, she’s particularly excited for the public to attend this year’s presentation lineup.
“One of our key experts is Dr. Thomas Joiner, and he really is respected as one of the foremost authorities on suicide,” Urso said. “He’s a researcher, he’s a psychologist, he’s from Florida State University, and he has literally written books on suicide that are widely been quoted and read. He has been with us every year and he will be here again this year.”
Along with Joiner, U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-MI) will be the event’s keynote speaker. She will take time to talk about the importance of mental health advocacy.
Taking Positive Steps for LGBTQ Youth
A local presenter scheduled at the conference is Rochester Hills-based Psychologist Dr. Nicole Law. She has presented at the conference for three years running and this year will contribute to the School Summit on suicide risk reduction for LGBTQ youth in schools. Much like their adult counterparts, The Trevor Project has found that LGBTQ youth is at a significantly greater risk for suicide than those who are straight and cisgender.
“I think also some of the statistics show that LGBTQ kids are [at a] 40 percent [lower] risk in a suicide attempts if they have at least one accepting adult, and they’re 2/3 less likely to even report suicidal ideation if they have high levels of family acceptance,” Law said. “So, those statistics really point us in a direction that we can concretely say, ‘OK, here are some of the things we can set out.’ How do we actively create safe spaces? How do we help schools help families to learn that it’s not enough to say, ‘OK, I love you no matter what,’ but [they should say], ‘I love you for who you are and you are perfect the way that you are?'”
When asked how to foster accepting environments for LGBTQ people, Law suggested posting things like inclusive artwork, wording and posters that immediately let students who enter the space know that they are going to be treated with respect. She added that taking care not to use limiting gendered language when assigning students work is a great way to avoid accidental alienation.
“Often, I hear stories of a gym class or an exercise in which there’s going to be an interactive quiz game and the teacher will break students into two different halves of the room and say, ‘OK, boys over here and girls over here.’ Well, someone who is trans or non-binary will sit in the middle and go, ‘Which side do you want me to go to?'” Law said. “… So, being mindful of the daily language that we use on a daily basis can be hugely supportive. Introducing yourself with your pronouns also speaks volumes.”
Additionally, Law said she has observed many LGBTQ students feeling discomfort when their rights come up for political debate as part of classroom discussion. She suggested educators be mindful of how political debates in the classroom are treated for this reason, and because it can help prevent a long-term sense of apathy and anxiety around political discussions.
“Often, people look at the higher risk of suicide and the higher risk of depression, ideation and anxiety and … think it’s dangerous to be trans because you are going to have a higher risk of suicide. And I think it’s really important to clarify … it’s not about identifying with the LGBTQ community, it’s about the interactions with the outside world,” Law said. “It’s about discrimination. It’s about the way they’re treated, and a constant sense of, ‘Laws are being written about me and my rights are even up for negotiation.’ Their interaction with the outside world that feels rejecting and harsh is what creates the risk for suicide, not the actual identification of the youth themselves.”
Spotting the Signs and Ending Stigma
However, even mindful actions taken in a classroom, among friends, family or co-workers won’t always be enough to prevent suicidal ideation. When asked how to spot the signs of suicidal thoughts, Urso said drastic changes in behavior are often the main signifiers.
“A lot of people are concerned about their teenagers. For instance, someone who was a good student, had a lot of friends, was an athlete who all of a sudden loses interest in things; that could be a sign,” Urso said. “It’s the same thing with a co-worker: someone who is outgoing and friendly and a hard worker might suddenly seem very quiet or doesn’t come to work or things of that nature.”
Beyond this, paying attention to casual references to suicide in conversation is vital, too.
“Any reference to, ‘I just don’t want to live anymore.’ If someone says something like that or, ‘Life isn’t worth living,’ a casual statement made in an upset time, those things you have to pay attention to. I’ve heard people say, ‘Oh, they’re just looking for attention.’ No. That is a serious sign,” Urso said. “And what we have learned, and this is fairly new — 20 years ago they would not have said to do this — but now we’re being encouraged to ask that family member or ask that co-worker, ‘Have you thought about suicide?’”
Urso said that even a simple question like that can “remove the secrecy” and be the catalyst for healing.
To find out more about Kevin’s Song and to register and purchase tickets for the conference visit kevinssong.org.