Chester Bennington. Kate Spade. Anthony Bourdain. Over the past few months the news has been full of high profile celebrity suicides. Famous people who by all society’s measurements appear to have been successful, sometimes without any sign of mental distress. The stories have merited extensive news coverage.
But there is a suicide story much closer to home and to our own lives that requires our attention. Amador County has the fourth highest suicide rate in California, while Calaveras County ranks sixth. How can this be? What can be done about it?
Last week Capitol Public Radio came from Sacramento to Sutter Creek to engage local folk in a conversation about rural suicide, particularly suicide in Amador County, for a story they plan to air in September. There were attendees from the county oﬃce of behavioral health services, the school district and veterans’ aﬀairs. Amador Tuolumne Community Action Agency, NEXUS, Sierra Wind, NAMI and Tribal TANF were there, along with Victory Village and private citizens - all trying to understand the problem and consider possible remedies.
Let’s consider some possible causes of our high suicide rate that came up during that conversation. There is a shortage of mental health providers in the county. The behavioral health department just hired a psychiatrist who will start July 12, but her services are only available to clients with Medi-Cal coverage; people with private insurance have to travel out of county for treatment. Transportation options are limited for those who do not have a car, leaving people who need help isolated. Upcountry cell phone service is spotty, meaning that someone who might call a prevention hotline cannot make the connection. Rural counties have higher gun ownership rates - the typical suicide in Amador County is committed by an older male using a gun. Finally, in a small county it can be hard to ask for help if you’re worried that everyone will know your business.
Oﬃcially, the national observance of Suicide Prevention Week will take place in September and World Suicide Prevention Day is September 10 this year. You will be hearing public service announcements on radio stations and seeing stories in newspapers. You will see posters around the county. But there is no need to wait until September. There are people already working to build county-wide coalitions around the topic of suicide prevention; there is action you can take right now.
Know the signs - is someone depressed, acting withdrawn or agitated? Are they engaging in reckless behavior? Expressing feelings of hopelessness? Talking about wanting to die? These are all signs that someone may be having suicidal thoughts.
Find the words - if you are worried about someone you need to start the conversation. It is alright to ask “Are you thinking about suicide?” (No, you won’t plant the idea if they hadn’t thought of it before). I like this line from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: “If you think someone is thinking about suicide, assume you are the only one who will reach out.”
Reach out - there are many free resources available to you and the person in crisis. A good place to start is with an excellent website: suicideispreventable.org. Here you will ﬁnd information about the signs that someone is contemplating suicide, good suggestions for exactly what to say (and what NOT to say) and resources. Another good website is afsp.org.
Put this number in your phone contacts: 1-800-273-8255 (the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline). Put it in your friends’ phones. You may never need to call them, but you will meet someone, someday, who needs the number.
Capitol Public Radio has a website with Amador County resources at capradio.org/ruralsuicide. Personally, we are active with NAMI Amador (National Alliance on Mental Illness) and our phone number is 223-1485 x266 - we can share resources and information for people who are struggling with mental health issues which can lead to suicide. We are NOT a hotline - in an emergency call 911 or the national suicide prevention number shown above.
Remember: Know the signs. Find the words. Reach out. Be the one.