Judy Fitzgerald: What are the facts, and what can we do to prevent suicide?

Judy Fitzgerald

September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, and this is an especially important issue to discuss right now. In fact, talking about suicide out loud — regularly repeatedly, and thoughtfully — is part of the solution. There are many ways that you can help prevent suicide regardless of your age, race, status or background, but first let’s remember what we all can do, and that is to offer a message of hope and support.

Each person’s life matters, and help is available for those who are struggling with feelings of hopelessness. We know that treatment for issues related to mental health and addiction can save lives. Hope comes in the form of the Georgia Crisis and Access Line (GCAL) at (800) 715-4225. GCAL is a free and confidential hotline provided by the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD). Available 24/7, GCAL is staffed by licensed clinicians and caring professionals trained in suicide prevention. Please save the number in your phone, and share it with everyone you know to increase awareness that help is available 24/7 statewide. If you have an iPhone or Android, you can also download the MyGCAL app, which allows users to call, text or chat with GCAL professionals.

In the last two decades, the rate of suicide has increased by 16% in Georgia and 30% across the nation. Suicide is a tragic occurrence that devastates families and communities. It is also preventable, and each of us has a role to play. By learning how to recognize risk factors and warning signs, as well as what to do about them, you can be part of the solution.

There is no single cause for suicide. Factors that are associated with suicide include mental illness, substance use disorders, painful losses, exposure to violence and social isolation. Below are warning signs that may indicate when a person is at risk:

• Talking about wanting to die or kill oneself.

Looking for a way to kill oneself.

Talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live.

Talking about feeling trapped or being in unbearable pain.

Talking about being a burden to others.

Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs.

Withdrawing or feeling isolated.

Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge.

Displaying extreme mood swings.

Knowing the risk factors and warning signs provides an opportunity for each of us to intervene. If you are concerned about someone who may be considering suicide, remember these four action steps: ASK-LISTEN-STAY-HELP.

Ask openly and compassionately, ‘Are you thinking about suicide?’ Listen to the person without judgment; avoid trying to "fix it." Stay with the person if he or she is suicidal; keep him or her safe until help arrives. If self-harm seems imminent, call 911. Then help the person find the right kind of help by calling the Georgia Crisis and Access Line 24/7. You can also text or chat with GCAL professionals using the MyGCAL app.

Beyond stopping a suicide at the moment of crisis, there are three easy and effective prevention strategies that can help people who are struggling.

First, consider whether anyone in your network of friends and family might be socially isolated. Do you have homebound grandparents, neighbors, etc. who receive few visitors? What about a young person with thousands of "friends" on social media but few friends in real life? Talk to them, make a connection and engage.

Second, become acquainted with suicide prevention resources in case you have to respond to a friend, co-worker, or stranger in crisis. Take a moment right now to program the GCAL number in your phone and download the MyGCAL app for Apple and Android. Download the app on your children’s phones, too. These simple steps could make a life-saving difference if you or someone you care about is ever in need or in a position to help someone who is at risk of suicide.

Finally, if you want to learn more, consider attending a suicide prevention training or event in your area, or read about suicide prevention from trustworthy sources, such as samhsa.gov/find-help/suicide-prevention. For clinicians seeking specialized training, DBHDD’s Mental Health Awareness Training Project offers intervention and suicide-risk screening training. Regardless of your role, there are opportunities to learn more and do more.

Suicide prevention is everyone’s business. It requires each of us to be actively engaged and willing to fight the associated stigma that keeps so many in pain, silent and isolated. By working together, we can help prevent the tragedy of suicide from hurting another Georgia family and help our state and nation get to zero suicide.

Judy Fitzgerald is commissioner of the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities.

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