Jill Wiedemann-West: Suicide is a Public-Health Threat — But There Are Reasons to Hope and Ways to Help

Sep 13, 2019

Op-ed by People Incorporated CEO, Jill-Wiedemann-West: published in the St. Paul Pioneer Press on September 13, 2019. Read the article.

In 2000, a young man named Kevin Hines attempted to take his life by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. Few people have survived that jump – but Hines did, and he went on to become a mental health advocate, an award-winning speaker, a best-selling author and a documentary filmmaker dedicated to saving lives. Next month, nearly 20 years since he attempted suicide, Hines will be in the Twin Cities sharing his story. It’s an important story and topic to hear, as the suicide rate in the United States – including in Minnesota – is on the rise.

This month is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, and the week of Sept. 8 is National Suicide Prevention Week. Like so many awareness and prevention initiatives, this is a topic few want to think about or discuss – but discuss we must, as we’re at a crossroads as a society. It is not an exaggeration at this point to say that suicide is a public health crisis. Not just nationally, but right here in our communities.

The numbers paint a grim picture: According to a Minnesota Department of Health data analysis released in December, deaths by suicide increased by 5% in 2017 compared to 2016. In 2017, there were 783 deaths by suicide. To put that into context, more than nine times as many people died by suicide in Minnesota in 2017 as in alcohol-related motor vehicle accidents. The rising rate is driven by the fact that there was a 9% increase in suicides among males, despite a 10% decrease in suicide by females. The rate is also higher in Greater Minnesota as compared to the seven-county metropolitan area, and American Indians in our state are disproportionately affected as well, with a suicide rate that was two times higher than the national rate from 2013 to 2017.

While it’s true the numbers are moving in the wrong direction for many populations, there is hope and tangible steps to help those who are suffering. For immediate help, people can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for themselves or a loved one. To seek mental health treatment, people can have a conversation with their primary care doctor, who should be able to connect them to specialists and resources for their situations. There are also a number of mental health care providers in Minnesota including my organization, People Incorporated, that may be a fit.

As a health care system and a society, we’re making great strides in treating mental illness. A significant aspect of that progress is the integrated health care model, which recognizes how physical and mental health are intertwined, and how factors such as one’s living environment and socioeconomic status affect mental health. After all, mental health does not exist in a silo, and neither should treatment for mental illness. The more we as a society can treat and care for individuals in a whole-person manner, the more our communities can recognize and intervene in situations before they become a moment of crisis. For those who want to be involved in building a better mental health system for Minnesotans, there are volunteer opportunities with a number of local mental healthcare agencies, including People Incorporated, that are designing and executing innovative programs and treatment options for those living with a mental illness.

There’s also this opportunity to show support for innovative, integrated mental health care in our community, and to hear Kevin Hines’ amazing story of surviving his suicide attempt off the Golden Gate Bridge: On Oct. 4, People Incorporated is hosting a celebration. We’re not only celebrating our 50th anniversary, but also those in our community who’ve moved mental health care forward over the past 50 years and who will continue to do so in the next 50. That evening Hines will be joined by Zak Williams, mental health advocate and son of the late actor Robin Williams; KARE 11’s Sven Sundgaard; and a concert by Morris Day and The Time, a world-renowned soul, rock and roll, and funk band who worked closely with Prince for many years.

Let’s push past the discomfort of the topic, and work together on building a stronger, more integrated system to better meet the needs of those who need our help the most.