"I really want people to start talking about suicide and mental health and eliminate the stigma for people suffering with sadness, depression and anxiety. I want it to someday be as acceptable as saying 'I have a headache' or 'I broke my leg.' There are a lot of people and kids out there who are suicidal. We just don't know. If we don't talk about it, how will we know?"
Those are the words of Mary Buzzell, whose son took his life by suicide six years ago. She has experienced first-hand the "collateral damage" – the pain felt by family members, friends, co-workers, therapists and others after a death by suicide.
More than five times as many people die by suicide in Oregon than by homicide, according to Marion County health officials, where Buzzell is an active volunteer.
The Marion County Health & Human Services Department has launched an initiative to dramatically reduce the number of suicides. The work includes educating county staff at all levels about suicide and partnering with other organizations to raise community awareness.
One goal is to make suicide as normal a health topic as cancer, which for generations was called "the C-word" and which was considered a forbidden subject for polite conversation.
Marion County brought local organizations together in May to identify resources and barriers in dealing with suicide. Seventy people, from a variety of agencies representing perspectives ranging from youth to seniors, participated. In September they'll gather again to identify action steps.
"The call to action we put out in May was a way to coalesce the community," says Cary Moller, the county's Health & Human Services administrator. "One of the key roles we play in the community is to convene conversations like this."
Kerryann Bouska, the department's prevention supervisor, says society is much better at suicide intervention than at promoting mental health, preventing suicides and helping people after a loved one has died by suicide. The newly formed coalition of community groups will help strengthen and share those resources.
The perception of stigma is one of the biggest obstacles.
"If we have a child who has a cold or a broken arm, we don't hesitate to take them to the doctor or the emergency room," says Phil Blea, the program manager for children's mental health. However, many families are reluctant to seek immediate help for someone experiencing mental health issues.
There also is a common misperception that talking about suicide will push someone into suicide. Research shows that is not the case.
"People fear that if they talk about it, bad things will happen. I think that if we don't talk about it, bad things will continue to happen," Moller says. "Suicide is preventable. Our goal is to help people know there are other options. If we think about it as a mental health condition, it's treatable. It's very treatable. And treatment works."
Moller and others say it's OK to ask people whether they are having suicidal thoughts – and then to listen instead of dismissing or downplaying their concerns. Your asking is a sign of caring support.
If someone is contemplating suicide, you can help the person contact a mental health professional. Or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK. You also can dial 211 to get a list of local resources.
Suicide does not discriminate. It affects people of all ages and all walks of life.
"It impacts everyone," says Cydney Nestor of Marion County Health & Human Services. "I've never met anyone who hasn't been touched."
September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis, the Marion County Psychiatric Crisis Center is open 24 hours per day, seven days per week and can be reached at (503) 585-4949. Youth and Family Crisis Services are also available 7 days per week from 7:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday – Friday and 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at (503) 576-4673.