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In This Together

On many different levels, the topic of suicide can be an uncomfortable one to discuss, but having those difficult conversations can help bring about positive change. For those struggling with their mental health to the point where they are thinking of ending their own life, to have folks lending their support and strength can make a world of difference in helping to avoid tragedy.

But, for those battling feelings of isolation, angst and other emotional tolls, it’s hard for them to see beyond the pain they are feeling inside. When it appears all hope is lost, many don’t realize just how many people are out there ready to do whatever they can to help. 

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide is the 12th-leading cause of death for Americans, with 130 suicide deaths per day. Those are staggering numbers on the surface and so, as we enter into Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, area organizations are doing their best to spread the word that no one should feel alone in their struggles.

Sarah Summey is a mental health leadership professional with over 20 years of experience in health care and is the director of business development for Central Florida Behavioral Hospital and Palm Point Behavioral Health. She says it’s imperative to directly connect with those wrestling with suicidal thoughts, hopelessness and other barriers to mental wellness. 

“We want individuals to know there is help and hope. We are listening,” Summey says. “Many have mental health challenges, and it is OK to not be OK. We are excited for the increasing amount of resources in the Central Florida community, including the launch of 988 [the new national suicide and crisis lifeline], which are breaking down barriers and making it increasingly easy for those struggling to reach out for help.”

“With mental health, you really want to educate the community that it’s OK to feel what you’re feeling and it’s OK to talk to someone about it,” adds Maria Bledsoe, CEO for Central Florida Cares Health System.

Marni Stahlman, president and CEO of the Mental Health Association of Central Florida, knows firsthand how impactful it can be to show folks there’s a way through it all. The organization’s You are a Lifeguard initiative aims to prevent suicide in adolescents and young adults by connecting them with services and support so they know they are not alone.

“Suicide is not on its own a mental illness, but more than 80% of the individuals that die by suicide have a mental illness, an underlying cause of depression, which is the most common mental health disorder associated with suicide. And that’s the issue we’re really grappling with,” she says.

Roberto Katz, behavioral health clinical services manager with 26Health, illustrates the importance of normalizing and humanizing the process of asking for help. “We live in a culture that heavily pushes us to seek self-reliance. However, the reality is that we cannot resolve every problem on our own.

“We need to develop a better understanding on how mental health is a medical problem exacerbated by social and environmental issues. A problem cannot be addressed is if it not communicated,” he says. 

That mission takes on heightened importance for Katz and his colleagues at 26Health who work so closely with the LGBTQIA+ community. A 2022 national survey on mental health revealed that 45% of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year. Furthermore, 60% of LGBTQ youth who wanted mental health care in the past year were not able to get it.

“Wellness is perceived as a luxury, especially in the presence of financial pressures and difficulties covering basic needs,” Katz says. “Hence, many of these messages about health and wellness might not be hitting the target. … We need to strive in presenting wellness as something attainable.”

Traci Powell is a board-certified psychiatric/mental health nurse practitioner, certified trauma treatment specialist and trauma education consultant who operates The Rebuilt Woman, a trauma and recovery center based in Winter Garden.

Faced with clients who routinely have shied away from talking about their struggles, she spends days at a time counseling people as part of an intensive holistic therapeutic strategy that gives them the time and space to open up. 

“Everyone thinks people are doing awesome, but there’s so many who are walking around silently struggling. I provide a space where we can openly talk about these feelings. It doesn’t mean you are necessarily going to end your life, it means that you have pain that needs to be dealt with and so let’s get to the root of that pain,” says Powell.

Taking that first step to seek help takes a lot of courage, no doubt, and Bledsoe says it’s OK for individuals to experience minor setbacks along the road to recovery. 

“When a person decides that they need help, that is due to a huge range of emotions that they may be feeling at that particular time. That first step is so important because we need to make sure they feel comfortable, that they are in a safe space and that they are being acknowledged for what their feelings are. That first step can happen multiple times, but we want to make sure they know someone is going to be there to help them through their journey,” says Bledsoe. 

One particular group of people who regularly suffer bouts of depression, anxiety and the like are first responders, thanks to the nature of the situations they can be faced with while on the job. David Rozek, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at University of Central Florida (UCF) and serves as the director of the National Center of Excellence for First Responder Behavioral Health at UCF RESTORES. He oversees numerous suicide prevention programs focused on training first responders and community members on how to identify warning signs of distress and suicide, how to have those difficult conversations and the steps that can be taken to help. 

“This support system is important as first responders are exposed to high rates of traumatic events and are at higher risk of both PTSD and death by suicide,” says Rozek.

And these programs are not only benefitting those on the frontlines, but also their loved ones. Rozek says UCF RESTORES has been working to expand its training programs to create focused training that will provide skills for family members both on supporting themselves related to the stress of their first responder’s job and how to support their loved one if they see them begin to struggle.

“We know that helping the family system is important in the overall wellness of our first responders. If one member of the family system is out of sync, the whole family feels the effect. Counter to that, as we help the first responder recover, we can have a drastically positive impact on the family, as well,” says Rozek.

Scott Billue is the founder, president and CEO of Matthew’s Hope Ministries, which provides basic needs for the homeless community and advocates on their behalf.  He believes the financial, physical and mental tolls of the pandemic, along with the recent issues with inflation, have led to anxiety and depression.

“When you have so little and are trying to get back on your feet, the aftermath of the pandemic makes it nearly impossible for people to move forward,” he says. “The mental toll it has taken on many is devastating and some feel suicide is their only way out. The increase in homelessness with the elderly, those with disabilities and young families is like nothing we have ever witnessed. Add that to the lack of available and affordable mental health care, and you create the perfect storm.”

Regardless of the reason why someone may be feeling suicidal, enhanced education and training programs like those found throughout Central Florida are helping turn the tide as Bledsoe says locally there’s been a small drop in deaths by suicide from 13.8 to 11.9 per 100,000 residents. 

“It’s not huge, but even a slight decrease is positive,” she says. 

It’s also proof that suicide prevention awareness is working, though there’s still plenty of work to be done. While people often associate suicide with the negative aspect of taking one’s life, there are many success stories out there and it’s important to share those as inspirational tales of resiliency and hope. 

Summey says those messages of hope save lives every day. “Peer support is growing increasingly popular in the mental health community and there is significant evidence suggesting that people who have barriers to mental wellness do find hope, healing and a sense of belonging with these support systems,” she says. 

Katz further agrees with this sentiment and says sharing these types of stories can help others amplify their perspective while also reducing stigma, which can go a long way toward future outreach. But, perhaps most importantly, it conveys something that those suffering from mental health issues desperately need to hear.

“It delivers the message that they are not alone,” adds Katz.