OP-ED: Shattering suicide stigma through sharing stories
As a special advisor to the secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, I have the honor of heading up the statewide Suicide Prevention Task Force, along with my dedicated colleagues at the Office of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, state Rep. Mike Schlossberg, various state agencies, and Prevent Suicide PA.
For me, serving on this task force and contributing to suicide prevention efforts in Pennsylvania is not only important to me professionally, but also deeply personal. I have struggled with mental illness for years and am a suicide attempt survivor.
The statewide Suicide Prevention Task Force’s goal is to develop and implement a comprehensive four-year strategy to reduce suicides in Pennsylvania and combat stigma associated with suicide, suicide attempts, and mental health and wellness.
One tactic to reduce stigma includes lifting up voices of individuals and families who have lived experiences and hear first hand the far-reaching impact of suicide and the struggle that goes along with this.
I’ve struggled to tell my own story in a professional space because of the shame — real or perceived — associated with mental illness.
In my experience, as a society, we have little problem sharing with our employer that we have scheduled primary care doctor visits or dentist visits when asking for time off, or even disclosing personal details of more serious physical health problems in the workplace. Why is it so hard to have an honest conversation with employers, co-workers, and, sometimes, our close family and friends about prioritizing our mental health?
The most crucial component of my mental health treatment and recovery was building and trusting a support network of friends, family, professionals and colleagues to help me through the journey. An important goal of the state’s Suicide Prevention Task Force is to encourage individuals to seek help when they are struggling — which is absolutely critical.
But it is also important to remember our own role in reaching out to those friends, family members, co-workers and neighbors who may face challenges with their mental health and letting them know they are not alone.
Working through issues is tough in itself, but dealing with systemic problems, even as someone who is familiar with the mental health system, can be incredibly draining. It is not lost on me that I am incredibly fortunate to have health coverage through employment with the commonwealth, as well as other means, like transportation and employer support, that are helpful in accessing mental health services.
The Suicide Prevention Task Force recognizes the importance of access to quality services and will work to identify and reduce barriers that may prevent individuals from receiving the care they need. One of the first steps in the process of reducing suicide in Pennsylvania is to listen to the public and learn from the stories of those impacted by mental health struggles. We need to consider the experiences of individuals and families from all backgrounds, mental health professionals, first responders, educators, and advocates and make sure we are doing all we can as Pennsylvanians to reduce suicide across the commonwealth.
In that spirit, the task force is hosting public listening sessions across Pennsylvania. You are invited and encouraged to join us for a listening session about suicide prevention and awareness from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 10 at the Jewish Community Center, 2000 Hollywood Dr. in York.
For more information on Governor Wolf’s Suicide Prevention Task Force, please visit: http://www.dhs.pa.gov/citizens/SuicidePrevention/