I spent the better part of the last 3 days attending a virtual conference addressing the suicide crisis that we are facing as a nation. The conference is organized by a wonderful organization called Kevin’s Song, which was founded by a grieving couple whose son, Kevin Urso, took his life by suicide in March 2013. This was my second year attending the annual conference, having attended last year for the first time as it went virtual.
Every time I attend a conference, or read a book, or listen to a podcast, I am invigorated by the information that I glean, which often leads to epiphanies about my own life. Isn’t it funny how we think we know so much about a particular topic, when indeed there is always more to learn? That is why I am typing this blog, to document the plethora of knowledge I acquired during this year’s Kevin’s Song conference. My hope is that you will find the information useful as well.
Youth Suicide Crisis and the Intersection of Racism
The first day of the conference was dedicated to youth and suicide. I learned that 25% of youth are experiencing depression, while 20% are experiencing anxiety. Not surprisingly, these numbers have DOUBLED during the pandemic. Black youth are twice as likely than white youth to die by suicide. This article shares information as to the reasons for the disparity. Not only are there issues with access to care, but there is also an understandable lack of trust. I was shocked to learn that when African Americans seek mental healthcare, providers are 23% more verbally dominant with them and 33% less involved in patient centered planning than they are with their white counterparts. It’s no wonder that only 20-30% of people in communities of color who need mental healthcare receive it. There is a major disconnect. While the overall suicide rate has increased by 35% since 1999, it is up 78% in the Black community. As we know, racism is still alive and well, and it is killing our Black brethren. We must work to change this.
Jordan Burnham is a 32 year old suicide survivor who told us his poignant story of attempting suicide by jumping from his 9 story window when he was a teenager. He endured years of excruciating pain and physical therapy to get where he is today. You can read about him in the linked article above if you haven’t already. He uses his powerful voice and his determination to share his story with others, and he has undoubtedly saved countless lives in doing so. We need more Jordan Burnhams in this world. We need more bravery.
Speaking of bravery, I founded this blog and website over 2 years ago when I became sober, after attempting to treat my own anxiety and depression with alcohol for many years. One thing that struck me as it pertains to youth is that when their caregivers are experiencing mental health issues and/or substance abuse, it is traumatizing for children and can lead to mental health issues and behavioral issues. I experienced this firsthand with my own father, and I feel a sense of shame that for a few years, I did the same thing to my own children. I witnessed firsthand what my depressive or anxious episodes did to my sweet Adam, who is an empath just like his mama. He began to take on my burdens. It hurts my heart just typing this, but I am grateful that I overcame my alcohol addiction and got over the stigma I had associated with taking medication so that I could be fully present and healthy for my children. How often do we speak about the negative impact of child neglect and abuse, yet we don’t often address the devastation caused by a caregiver’s untreated mental health condition? It’s time we changed that. A quote that was shared during the conference says, “Guilt changed to regret can give you a purpose for your pain.” While I regret my past, I can absolve myself of the guilt I feel because it isn’t serving me or accomplishing anything. I must focus on what I CAN do now to be there for my children 100% each day.
Addressing our Mental Health – Ways to Help Yourself and Others
If you are experiencing mood swings, anxiety or depression, or changes in your mental health, there are things you can do in that moment. One of the speakers during the conference has a wonderful acronym for doing a self check-in. It is HALT, and it stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, and Tired. If you are experiencing changes in your mental health, check in with yourself to see if any of these words ring true. Personally, if I am hungry (HANGRY) or tired, I know that I am not going to perform at my best. At worst, it can make me hate the world until I get something in my belly or some rest. It’s a good acronym to remember when you are feeling low. Of course this is not a solution for everyone, but it is a good reminder.
If you feel yourself “emotionally on fire,” as one presenter put it, there are 3 things you can do to calm yourself down: Chill, Be Still, and Look. Chill does NOT mean “chill out.” How many times does that work when you are upset, and someone tells you to “just chill out” or “calm down?” Possibly the worst thing someone can say, right? What chill means is to put cold water on yourself. Drink some ice water or take a cold shower. The cold will do something to your body and cause a helpful reaction. Be still means stop what you are doing – meditate or take a nap if you can. By slowing your body down, you can focus on your breath. Look means to look someone in the eye. If you are experiencing a mental health crisis or if something has you feeling all the feels, sharing that human connection with someone else will help to soothe you.
Another beautiful quote that was shared during the conference is, “Listening and noticing someone’s pain peels off the top layer.” Multiple survivors shared how unhelpful it is when they share their pain, and their audience minimizes it by saying things like, “Well, at least…” or “Look at the bright side…” These are known as empathy traps, and if we find ourselves stating these things, we must stop immediately. Most people telling you about their pain don’t need you to try to problem solve or fix things for them; they merely want you to listen. Even if you don’t know what to say, that’s OK. JUST LISTEN. If the person sharing their trauma or pain with you wants more, let THEM tell you.
There are 5 Rs of trauma informed care. If someone comes to you with their pain and trauma, there are 5 things you can do for them:
1. Realize the impact of trauma
2. Recognize the signs of trauma
3. Respond by integrating knowledge
4. Resist re-traumatization (refer to the empathy traps listed in the last paragraph)
5. Resilience – helping to cope, adapt, and recover
The fifth R is a new concept that stresses the importance of giving people life skills that will help them to survive and thrive. There is a term called compassion resilience that we must apply when responding to traumatized individuals. It means that we are maintaining our emotional, physical, and mental well-being while responding compassionately. Dr. Brené Brown puts it best by stating, “Rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.”
Connection. This 10-letter word holds so much meaning and depth. By focusing on our connections with others, we can help ourselves and help others. My survivor community has been a constant support for me over the past few years. This year will mark the 8th year since my dad took his life. Sitting with that hits me right in my chest and leaves me feeling lonely. And yet, I know I am not alone. My connections are there – I just need to reach out to them. Sometimes I don’t even have to because they often check in with me. I do the same for them.
We are all connected to each other in this life. We have so many resources at our fingertips. If you are feeling isolated and abandoned, which is felt often in this horrific pandemic, please call the suicide lifeline at 800-273-8255 or text HELLO (or anything) to 741741. If you know someone with mental health issues, please check in on them. Tell them you love them. Just listen to what they have to say. You could help save a life.