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Quillen’s Corner: Can We Fix What Happened Yesterday?

By Martha Quillen

After Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain committed suicide, news sources focused on our nation’s escalating suicide rate, and some concluded our entire society is sick. But that’s hardly a novel idea in our era of school shootings, factionalism, and increased levels of opioid addiction, obesity, suicide, inequality and scandals that reveal sexist and racist attitudes.

A few months ago I attended a Mental Health First Aid USA training session here in Salida. A national program, it’s purpose is to offer guidance on how to assist people experiencing mental health problems in the same way old-fashioned first aid classes teach people how to handle other medical emergencies.

It’s odd, when you think about it, that such information hasn’t long been a standard part of classroom and scouting instruction. Yet the presentation I went to was inspired by an Australian research program established in the 21st century. The Mental Health First Aid USA program supplies information about depression, suicide, self-inflicted injuries (cutting, burning, etc.), eating disorders, anxiety disorders (including post-traumatic stress, phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorders and panic attacks), substance abuse, psychosis, and long-term ailments such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

The workshop materials contend that mental health disorders are common and experienced by 19.6 percent of American adults in any one year. That doesn’t mean everyone will eventually get one, but it does mean everyone will be affected. According to the World Health Organization, mental disorders are the biggest health problem in North America, exceeding both cardiovascular disease and cancer and also respiratory disorders and unintentional injuries. Once a person suffers from one mental disorder, the risk goes up for experiencing another.

The course doesn’t address cultural remedies. But as I read their manual, some of the reasons why our society seems to be generating mental illness seemed obvious. Triggers, risks and exacerbating conditions associated with mental illness include loneliness, grief, illness, unemployment, financial losses, poverty, urban living, being a crime victim, traumatic events, sexual abuse, relationship break-ups, bullying, victimization and social stress.

The program’s advice for dealing with people in distress is simple and logical, yet it’s not how Americans usually treat one another. Mostly, the experts advise that people dispensing mental first aid should assess the situation, listen non-judgmentally, avoid interrupting, and seek professional help if a situation seems critical.

Their specific advice for handling aggressive behavior includes: Do not respond in a hostile, disciplinary or challenging manner. Do not argue. Do not threaten. Do not restrict a person’s movement. Be aware that certain acts, such as involving law enforcement, might exacerbate the situation. Also, consider taking a break from conversation to let the person calm down.

And when dealing with depression, suicidal threats, eating disorders and the like? It counsels: Do not tell someone to just snap out of it. Don’t be sarcastic. Don’t trivialize the person’s experiences by pressuring them to smile, lighten up or think positively. Don’t try to instill shame or guilt. Don’t blame the person for their symptoms. Don’t assume an overprotective attitude. Don’t tell someone they’ve always been negative or difficult. Don’t try to provide answers to their problems. And be patient.

The booklet recommends calm, empathetic reassurance; giving practical help with tasks that may seem overwhelming to people in distress; dispensing sound information; fostering hope; and encouraging appropriate professional help, self-help, and support strategies.

Yet that’s not what American society is about. Our culture encourages take charge attitudes, decisiveness, heroism and action. We are prodded to be go-getters, world-changers, critics, leaders, women who want to crash through glass ceilings, men who want to command. Modern Americans want to fix things – yesterday.

After Bourdain and Spade died, suicide swamped public discourse, and it should. Suicide rates are up almost 30 percent since 1999, and have risen in 49 states. Among men 45 to 64 the rate has risen 43 percent.


[InContentAdTwo] Matt Walsh, a writer for the DailyWire, recommends crisis hotlines, but says, “People need more than that. They need more than therapy and phone numbers. They even need more than the knowledge that other people love them. They need meaning. They need hope. They need there to be a point to all of this, a reason.” A conservative, Walsh recommends God and religion.

Others likewise feel that people need more meaning in their lives, but recommend more secular ways to find it.

An article posted by The Hill suggests that America’s rising suicide rate may be as much a financial as a mental health issue, because financial losses, long-term financial stress, and poverty put people at risk for depression and suicide.

Americans from all classes, demographics and political persuasions display evidence of feeling put upon, unjustly treated, and/or reviled by current circumstances. Spade and Bourdain had risen to the stratosphere of success, yet committed suicide. And even those (or perhaps especially those) leading our society feel mistreated and persecuted, often with ample cause. You can detect that in complaints about “deplorables” and “the entitled” made by Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton, and in Trump’s view that families fleeing cartels, failed states, misery, penury and death are coming here to rob and kill us.

On the other hand, many Americans see our escalating suicide rate as more a matter of faulty values than of spiritual, mental or financial problems. In USA Today, Kirsten Powers reveals how she survived a suicidal period after her father died. She characterizes despair and emotional suffering as “a rational response to a culture that values people based on ever-escalating financial and personal achievements.” Powers says, “we should acknowledge that something is very wrong. We should stop telling people who yearn for a deeper meaning in life that they have an illness or need therapy. Instead, we need to help people craft lives that are more meaningful and built on a firmer foundation than personal success.”

In a 2016 Foreign Policy editorial, Fredrik Deboer wrote about suicide: “Imagine if more than 40,000 people a year died from terrorist attacks in this country, rather than a bare handful. Imagine if terrorism was one of the 10 leading causes of death in the United States … the impact would simply be too massive to really grasp.”

The stats are abysmal. In 2017, 44,965 Americans committed suicide. Twice as many people die from suicide than homicide, and Colorado is among the states with the highest percentage of suicides, with 16.95 to 22.90 suicides per 100,000 people.

There are clearly two ways to approach mental health. One is to effectively treat the afflicted. The other is to reduce some of the cultural causes associated with mental health problems. The Mental Health First Aid USA program is trying to help the afflicted, and Americans are attempting to reform their culture. But the difference in their methods are telling.

The Mental Health First Aid USA program recommends non-judgmental listening, a calm demeanor, respect, and non-stigmatizing suggestions to help individuals surmount well-defined disorders. Whereas the citizens are trying to eliminate injustice and discrimination by demanding more restrictive legislation and that people recognize their past misdeeds and abuses and face consequences for them.

But can anger, blame, disgrace and coerced confessions actually fix anything? Or do current tactics merely intensify the anxiety, guilt, fear, division, pessimism and depression that are plaguing our nation?

Martha Quillen’s interest in attending a mental health seminar was inspired by Facebook conversations that revealed how many locals are grappling with worry and anguish. Information about Mental Health First Aid is available online at Numbers shared during their workshop included: Colorado Crisis, 844-493-8255; National Suicide Hotline, 800-273-8255; Text to Talk, 38255; and Chaffee County’s mental health services, 719-539-6502.