We’re rapidly approaching the end of “Mental Health Awareness Month” and while it’s an important observance each year, it’s far from just another “awareness month” box to be checked off and filed away. Mental health issues are critically important and affect so many people that they really deserve the same amount of attention the other 11 months of the year, too. Part of the reason for the awareness month, though, is because – unlike a medical condition you might have been born with or developed over time – mental health issues carry social stigmas that sometimes force them into the shadows. Still, conditions such as depression and anxiety are widespread. And while we may attribute those conditions to something within each person’s own life that he or she “let happen” or “couldn’t control,” the truth is that mental health issues sometimes go far beyond simple explanations that put the blame on the individual’s choices or situations.
Psychiatrist Dr. Julia Wood from Blount Memorial Parkway Psychiatric Service says she believes the stigmas around mental health are decreasing. “With depression and anxiety so commonplace, most of us know people suffering from these conditions,” she said. “However, stigmas surrounding certain aspects of mental health still exist. Suicide certainly is one of them. Suicide is the tenth-leading cause of death in the United States. In people ages 15 to 25, it is the second most-common cause of death behind accidents. Recent data suggests that suicide rates are rising in some segments of the population, particularly older adults, who have the highest rate of suicide,” Wood explained.
“Because we don’t talk a lot about suicide, a lot of misconceptions exist,” Wood said. “There are a few things I believe everyone should know about suicide. First, suicide runs in families, and both genetic and environmental factors contribute to this fact. Learning more about the genetic factors behind suicide may help us better identify people at higher risk for suicidal thoughts and behaviors, and may lead to better treatments. Second, suicide does not always occur in the context of ‘mental illness.’ While most people who attempt suicide are suffering from a mood disorder, not everyone shows signs that he or she is struggling. Adolescents, especially, can act impulsively. Using alcohol or drugs also increases a person’s risk for suicide as substances reduce a person’s inhibitions and overall judgment,” Wood explained.
Wood says the third thing to remember is that firearms play a huge role in suicide. “Half of all suicides involve firearms,” she said. “Firearms are an extremely lethal form of suicide; people who attempt suicide with a firearm are successful in killing themselves 85 percent of the time. By contrast, people who attempt suicide by cutting themselves or overdosing on pills succeed only one to two percent of the time. Simply having a firearm in the home puts one at increased risk for suicide. There are many things that we can do, however, to reduce the risk that our firearms will be used in a suicide attempt. One of the most important things is to keep firearms locked away to prevent someone in the home from accessing the weapon in a moment of impulsivity. I also advise people to store ammunition separate from their firearms as this has been shown to further reduce the risk of suicide. By separating ammunition from a firearm people are forced to spend more time thinking over this fatal decision,” she explained. “I would urge all gun owners to keep firearms locked away, and to not allow anyone other than themselves to have access to them. Suicidal thoughts are temporary. Keeping a friend or family member away from ones firearms could be lifesaving,” she added.
“Fourth, the notion that if we stop people from attempting suicide that they will simply find another way to commit suicide later is a myth,” Wood said. “Most people who attempt suicide will not attempt suicide a second time. What this means is that preventing someone from committing suicide can result in saving someone’s life. We can make a difference in the lives of those who feel as though they are at the end of the rope,” she explained.
“Finally, it’s important to note that suicide is not a selfish act,” Wood added. “It is an action taken out of desperation and hopelessness. When having serious suicidal thoughts, many people believe that their loved ones would truly be better off without them. They may feel that they are a burden on others. If someone in your life talks about suicide, please take them seriously. Listen without judging them, and help get them to professional help. In the moment, there are hotlines as well as emergency rooms if someone is in crisis. There are effective treatments for depression or other causes of suicidal thinking. By talking about suicide we can help reduce stigma and allow people to get the help they need,” she said.
Wood sees patients at Parkway Psychiatric Service, located at 220 Associates Blvd. in Alcoa. For more information or to schedule an initial appointment, call Parkway Psychiatric Service at 865-980-5377.