I watched people write posts and tweet with the hashtag with a bit of muffled, tamped-down fascination. This was my first National Suicide Prevention Week after being twice-institutionalized in one year. The hospitalizations weren’t my first times being suicidal. But National Suicide Prevention Week had always been a dull echo – mental health hotlines plastered over social media and onto the bathroom stalls at my college – much like the suicidal ideation that was constant static in my mind, sometimes flaring up like microphone feedback.
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But this is not a post about my journey through suicidal ideation and tendencies.
It’s about how National Suicide Prevention Week allows society get away with mistreatment, discrimination, and other systemic factors by placing responsibility square on the suicidal individual, and then expects us to tell our suicide survival stories like we’re in a spectator sport, rather than bearing witness to society’s shortcomings.*
Yes, people with mental health needs seem disproportionately more likely to die by suicide (I looked long and hard for these suicide rates on a national scale, but only found data that “the consequences of undiagnosed, untreated, or undertreated co-occurring disorders can lead to a higher likelihood of experiencing homelessness, incarceration, medical illnesses, suicide, or even early death,” of course without talking about societal factors). But discrimination has a negative impact on mental health, and many populations experience imbalances in suicide rates. (What I mean by societal factors are: discrimination and mistreatment – including incidents that seem small, part of everyday life, and/or seem more overt and blatant).
What’s to go wrong with preventing suicide, though? I know suicide results in lost lives. I know it hurts the living. I know there’s a reason people close to me cried when I admitted myself to the psych ward both times for suicidality. I know how they would have cried further had I actually died. I know people with mental health needs die by suicide and their deaths could have been preventable through access to certain care.
But… SAMHSA says “Ideally, these [suicide prevention] efforts address individual, relationship, community, and societal factors while promoting hope, easing access into effective treatment, encouraging connectedness, and supporting recovery.” That sounds great to most people. Parts even sound nice to me on the surface. But the “community, and societal factors” parts feel like they’re still in the “ideal” stages. One of the largest charities involved in suicide prevention, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP)** focused on firearms and suicide, emergency department screenings and primary health care screenings as part of their Project 2025 model for National Suicide Week Prevention 2016. None of these include factors other than individual (that match the factors I’m talking about). None of these come near addressing mistreatment, discrimination, and the like. None of these address communities often impacted by trauma and/or high rates of mental health disabilities (in part due to mistreatment and discrimination).
Mistreatment and discrimination also preclude many from seeking mental health care. As I’ve said before regarding the public conversation on mental health: “[it] doesn’t factor in the many other reasons why people might not seek care. These reasons include… forms of bigotry in health care. Medical professionals are not exempt from casual or blatant forms of bigotry.” If no one addresses causes of suicide in terms of the toll of discrimination and mistreatment on individuals and communities, it is my opinion that we will not be able to reduce suicide rates as much as we want to. Further, not addressing systemic issues allows society off the hook entirely (which is a problem I have with a lot of disability and mental health awareness campaigns).
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Do I believe in suicide prevention? Yes. But I believe in comprehensive suicide prevention. Suicide prevention must encompass both the individual and society. I believe in suicide prevention that reduces the amount of discrimination and mistreatment in the mental health care system. I believe in suicide prevention that works as more general mental health advocacy to provide stable housing and community services as opposed to institutionalization and lack of in-home settings. I believe in suicide prevention that addresses whole people and their relationships and communities and the impact society has on them.
What would my vision of comprehensive suicide prevention look like? My vision would look like addressing individual needs through crisis support and preventing a crisis from even happening, but also addressing societal barriers and discrimination. It would look like 24-hour drop-in centers staffed by peer support specialists. It would look like at-home services as opposed to locking someone in a hospital. It would look like collaboratively working for many forms of lessening discrimination against various marginalized people through multiple methods of advocacy, including direct action and incremental change. It would look like supported housing and late-night cafes and be a broad approach.
Do I believe in suicide prevention? Yes. Do I believe in this particular awareness campaign of suicide prevention? Not as much as I could.
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*I do not speak for all people with mental health needs. I do not claim to. I know some people with mental health needs find these campaigns to be enough and/or to be the most appropriate thing. My opinion differs.
**I must note that I am not, in fact, wholly against AFSP, and that I don’t want to sound like their approach will do nothing at all. I just argue that it’s not enough.
I do welcome thoughts on this blog post, but I will remind you of my comment policy.