By Jim Harris
The statistics concerning suicide are sobering, and the issue impacts many more people than most of us realize. We see the headlines when we lose celebrities like Robin Williams and Anthony Bourdain, but often it touches much closer to home.
South Carolina was the second state to recognize the importance of mental health services, funding the care and treatment of mental illnesses back in 1821. Today we are fortunate that South Carolina continues to take a lead role in providing services to help prevent suicide and educate and train our communities and leaders to offer assistance on local levels.
Suicide isn’t an isolated issue. It’s the number ten killer in the US. and the second leading cause of death among 10 to 34-year-olds. White males overall account for almost 70% of all suicides. The number of suicides has increased by 33% in just the last generation. The suicide rate among veterans is 1.5 times the rate of non-veterans.
The issue reaches well beyond those who took their own lives. In 2019, 12 million American adults had thoughts of suicide. 3.5 million made suicide plans. 1.2 million Americans made plans and attempted suicide, and 217,000 attempted without a plan in place.
In South Carolina, the Department of Mental Health is not a broker of services as in some other states but an actual provider of care under one system in all forty-six counties. The 2020 Covid pandemic caused the agency to pivot quickly in how services were provided and create inroads into overall systemic improvements and financial resources to help eliminate the roadblocks some incur in seeking help.
In the last year, the S.C. Department of Health has gone from less than 100 folks statewide trained in evidence-based therapy to 900 people trained to address suicide thoughts and behaviors specifically. S.C. has also gone from only two individuals in the state qualified to work with bereaved survivors, statistically at a higher risk of suicide themselves, to over 400 today.
The South Carolina Hopes program was created in 2020 to provide a financial resource to provide treatment for those impacted by the pandemic. That grant has been extended through next year. Options are available that avoid the common impediments of childcare and transportation.
South Carolina recently launched a faith-based initiative, where dialogue has been created with pastors and church leaders to help them effectively deal with their congregants struggling with suicidal concerns and their own occupational stressors.
Ours is the only state in the country with an online self-help questionnaire. Individuals aged 18 and up can log in and answer questions about anxiety, depression, trauma, work history, substance use, suicidal thoughts, treatment history and add any notes about your past you’d like to share. A counselor will review your information who will respond, offer help, and direct you to any needed resources. You may choose to have an ongoing dialogue with the counselor. The process is entirely anonymous. You do not have to provide any personal information, email address, phone number, etc. All suicide prevention services are also listed on this site, including services specifically for veterans and a connection to a mobile crisis team. A group of specialists can travel to you to provide assessment and care recommendations.
Jennifer Butler is the Program Director for the S.C. Department of Mental Health, Office of Suicide Prevention. As a professional with 26 years of experience in social work and 23 of those focused on suicide prevention, she is passionate about addressing this vital issue.
Jennifer says that the way we change the stigma is to continue to talk about it openly. She recommends, “Talk about it when there isn’t a problem. To say ‘we’re all wonderfully human and all vulnerable to having darkness overwhelm our capacity to cope on any given day”.
She advises that circumstances can affect each of us at times, creating a need for the services available. She says, “We have to have these conversations with our kids and with each other in lots of different spaces. Then, when we are in trouble, we have to be able to say, ‘I am struggling, and I need someone, and be able to reach out.”
Vicki Redding is the Executive Director of the Anderson-Oconee-Pickens Mental Health Center for the South Carolina Department of Mental Health. She has extensive experience in mental health services and offers insight into how we can help others around us that may be suicidal. She seconded Jennifer’s thought that the first step is to talk about it openly. “So many people are afraid. It’s horribly scary to talk to somebody, to bring that up. There is that false assumption that if I ask them, ’Are you thinking about hurting yourself, that they’re gonna do it. That’s really part of a misnomer that has gotten so ingrained in our culture. We don’t want to ask or say anything because that’s gonna make them think about it.” She continues, “We need to ask, we need to talk about it because being able to have those conversations, that defuses a lot of it.”
Open dialogue can reveal red flags that may indicate someone is contemplating harming themselves, like the anniversary of a tragic event or finding that an individual has taken steps to create a plan. The more specific their actions, the higher the level of risk may be. Being there to listen, validate their feelings, and suggesting talking with someone who can help are all helpful. Letting them know that you are there for them and will stay in the picture as you try to connect with professional help keeps them from feeling there’s no one in the equation supporting them. Simply having someone caring enough to have that conversation helps reduce that sense of isolation and the feeling that there are no other options.
In the last few years, many celebrities have gone public with their mental issues. That publicity is easing the stigma and letting people know that they are not alone. Redding says, “This occurs a lot more than people know and talk about. By being able to talk about it, it helps bring it out into the light, so that we can get people the help and the support they need, individually as well as family and community.”
NAMI is a national organization that provides support for the family members of those dealing with suicidal thoughts. Those impacted by suicide by a family member are at a higher risk level, so proactive care is essential.
Most healthcare plans include mental health services and adds that telehealth and call/text for assistance services make help available for everyone. If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). South Carolina residents can also text HOPEFORSC to 741741 to communicate via text only.
Upstate native Jim Harris is the author and creator behind The Southern Voice, a blog that tells the stories of unsung heroes, true crime, forgotten history and life as seen through a Southern lens.