Building 'suicide safer' villages for our teens

Awkward? Maybe. But honest talk is key

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By Cassandra West

Last summer after a "fairly public" suicide in Oak Park, Carey Carlock worked with others to establish a local Mental Health Awareness Suicide Prevention task force.

The goal, said Carlock, the CEO of Riveredge Hospital, a behavioral health facility in Forest Park, is to break the stigma around mental health and suicide. 

Building a "suicide safer community" is what these local experts aim to do. And a primary method is the hurdle of talking plainly and openly about the topic. That's a hard conversation to initiate whether it is with a family member coping with a death by suicide or with a friend who seems to be in a difficult emotional place.

For a long time, "people didn't talk about it if you lost a family member to suicide," Carlock said. "It was seen as something that you should be ashamed of. We're in a poignant time of transition currently, where people are saying, 'you need to talk about it. You can get help. You can get better.' People do get better. Recovery [from mental illness] is possible." 

Riveredge is working in partnership with Thrive Counseling Center, the Metro Suburban NAMI (National Alliance of Mental Illness) and other local organizations and agencies on this work. 

Suicide, of course, is as old as the ages. 

The ancient Greeks generally regarded it as acceptable. Shakespeare's tragedies made many feel sympathy toward characters who ended their lives by suicide --Hamlet, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra. On the other hand, noted philosophers such as Locke and Kant were vehemently opposed to suicide.

But suicide happens in every culture and it affects untold families. Yet there has been a deafening silence surrounding it. Since newspapers began running death notices, only rarely would the "S" word be used in an obituary. But while society avoided that "S" word, it clung to another: stigma.

Though suicide is one of the major mental health issues, the stigma attached to it runs deep. Suicide and stigma are like elephants occupying the same room. But now more mental health and other medical professionals are working to separate them. 

A lot of the efforts center on young people.

Suicide among 10- to 17-year-olds in Illinois rose steadily among both genders from 2007 to 2015, according to a report released last month by the Injury Prevention and Research Center at Lurie Children's Hospital.

Around the country and locally, organizations are adopting the #BreakTheStigma hashtag to encourage people to talk openly about mental health. 

"The current best method for identifying risk is to ask" a young person how they are doing, said Dr. Laurel Williams, chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital in Houston, Texas, in response to a study published last week in Pediatrics that found children ages 5 to 17 visited children's hospitals for suicidal thoughts or attempts about twice as often in 2015 as in 2008.

In the Oak Park River Forest community that has become a big focus in the mental health community. 

"People are doing a better of job of talking about signs and symptoms," said  Carlock. "Most of the community mental health agencies are highly aligned in talking about ways to reach bigger numbers of people to prevent stigma and suicide."

Several parents interviewed by Wednesday Journal about their children's mental health issues said they had heard their teens express suicidal thoughts. Before getting professional help, "she had a plan to kill herself," said one Oak Park mother of her teen daughter who has dealt with anxiety and depression among other behavioral issues.  

All are working to "help identify signs and symptoms and attenuate treatment to mitigate risks and have better outcomes," said Carlock, who is a trained therapist and board president of NAMI.

During May, which is Mental Health Awareness Month, the task force is rolling out a campaign with information on the signs and symptoms that family members and friends can learn to recognize in someone who may be at risk for suicide, Carlock said.

Thrive, an Oak Park-based mental health center, recently introduced a new program that it plans to launch this summer designed to make Oak Park and River Forest "suicide safer communities." On average, six lives are lost to suicide in these villages every year, according to Thrive. 

Living Works Education, an international leader in suicide prevention training, will train Thrive clinical staff and enhance their skills with safeTALK suicide alertness, and Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) suicide intervention trainings. Those staff members will then offer training and support to community residents, helping to build a network of individuals able to identify people with thoughts of suicide and connect them to resources.

Thrive is also planning to provide enhanced training for local police departments, emergency medical teams, fire departments, school personnel and others who will serve as ASIST partners, those prepared to accept referrals for individuals contemplating suicide.

SIDEBAR: A Support app for teens

SAY Connects is sponsored by the Good Heart Work Smart Foundation in partnership with Success for All Youth (SAY).  

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