Suicide prevention: A fountain of confidence

  • by Allen Jones
  • Wednesday April 1, 2015
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The San Francisco Bay Area chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention recently held its second annual Research to Practice Conference in San Francisco.

This year's conference focused on LGBT suicide risk and prevention. Ryan Ayers, northern California area director for AFSP, coordinated the daylong event, held at San Francisco State University. He admits there were a smaller number of attendees than last year's 130 people. But he was just as excited to hear what those leading the way on research of suicide and prevention had to share.

A good number of AFSP volunteers wearing blue T-shirts helped get the conference started offering refreshments, while a handful of organizations shared literature on suicide prevention. But before the conference began, a quick look at an AFSP pamphlet dispelled one myth:

Suicides are not more frequent around the December holidays. "In fact," the pamphlet stated, "suicide rates tend to be highest in the spring months, peaking in April, and are below average during the winter months, with the lowest rate in December."

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP)  is the leader in the fight against suicide. It funds research, creates educational programs, advocates for public policy, and supports survivors of suicide loss. It is led by Chief Executive Officer Robert Gebbia and headquartered in New York. AFSP has 67 local chapters with programs and events nationwide.


Sad facts

John R. Blosnich, Ph.D., with public health sciences at the Department of Veterans Affairs in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, highlighted LGBT mental health issues specifically related to the veterans community, and his research of sexual minority status among U.S. military personnel. He reminded those in attendance that despite the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," transgender people cannot serve in the military.

Ilan H. Meyer, Ph.D., a senior scholar for public policy at the Williams Institute for Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy at UCLA's School of Law, shared current research on suicide attempts and suicide in LGBT individuals. Meyer began his presentation with an illustration on a large screen with too many confusing lines that all pointed to suicide. Then he broke down the elements to show how researchers are finding ways to remove the confusion. In subsequent screen images the same information was presented, minus the confusing lines.

Jody L. Herman, Ph.D., also at the Williams Institute, provided a landscape overview of the research on suicide among transgender people, including promising interventions. However, she also provided a sobering fact from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: In 2013, there were a little over 16,000 murders in the U.S. There were 41,000 suicides in that same year.

Some of the information shared only a data nerd could understand. But these leading researchers made it clear to all that there is still too much that we do not know.

There are many warning signs of suicide, which include verbal statements, depression that gets worse, a decline in performance at school or work, and changes in self-care, to name a few. There are also the risk factors that include previous attempts, substance abuse, extreme sensitivity to rejection or failure, and isolation.

But too many have experienced what one conferencegoer described. Debra Anderson said her 82-year-old father-in-law committed suicide and not even her husband noticed any signs that he was suicidal. In fact, she said, his nickname for decades was, "Happy."


Breakout sessions

The conference broke into several smaller groups for more education and sharing on suicide and prevention. San Francisco Suicide Prevention had an impressive young woman who knew her stuff. Sivan Adato, youth and outreach manager, spends a good deal of her time in the schools. But last weekend she was also educating those at least twice her age on how to detect and help people at risk. She spoke as a seasoned professional, and is a suicide survivor and counselor.

The faith community was represented in one breakout session. A man who identified himself as John leads a Catholic Church LGBT ministry in a San Jose parish. He told how in 2003 he attempted suicide by drinking bleach. That attempt got him kicked out of college but when he revealed to his relieved mother that he tried to kill himself because he was homosexual, she then kicked him out of her life. To this day she does not speak to her son. Ironically, John found a Catholic church that could not be happier to welcome him and the man he eventually married.


Food for thought

The nation spent $12 billion on AIDS and $2 billion on breast cancer in 2013. It only spent $165 million on suicide prevention at a time when suicide had more deaths than AIDS and breast cancer combined in that year.

San Francisco recorded on average 100 suicides a year; not including those who use the iconic Golden Gate Bridge to end their life. On average there are only two to three teens in the city per year who end their life.

Of the 70,000 calls to the San Francisco Suicide Prevention hotline per year, nine out of 10 are related to relationships.


A feeling of hope

The conclusion of the conference included dinner and libations. There was also a survey. One participant filled out his form and turned it in frustrated that he could not find the words that best described what he experienced for the "comment" line. While mingling with others, it hit him.

He described feeling that we will get the upper hand on reducing the number of suicides by expressing what he wanted to say in the survey: that presenters all must have drank from a "fountain of confidence."


Allen Jones is a San Francisco resident.