September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. Each year, more than 41,000 Americans take their own lives in a final effort to escape the pain and suffering that often comes as a result of mental health issues, chronic substance abuse or other ailment that leave those affected feeling left with no other choice.

These horrific statistics do not take into account the estimated 10-20 attempts for each completed suicide.

This month provides a great opportunity to furnish support to those who have lost a loved one to suicide, to connect individuals suffering from depression or having suicidal thoughts to appropriate services, and to provide prevention resources to friends and family.

Santa Ynez Valley People Helping People (PHP) is focused on working with youth in local schools, and the data regarding depression and suicide should set off warning bells.

Recent analysis of the California Healthy Kids Survey, a bi-annual statewide survey of middle and high school students, shows how prevalent symptoms of depression and suicidal thoughts are among youth. The data shows approximately 25 percent of local high school students report feelings of depression, while 12 percent of respondents have seriously considered suicide in the past 12 months.

To place these numbers in perspective, those percentages would equate to about 265 students feeling depressed, and 130 students considering suicide.

It is important to understand that suicidal thoughts, while common, are not a normal response to stress or anxiety, and may be symptomatic of more serious underlying emotional or mental health issues. Sadly, another youth under age 18 recently took his own life in the Santa Ynez Valley.

In recent years, there have been initiatives to look at health as inclusive of physical, mental and social well-being. This paradigm shift, adopted at PHP, is directed toward looking at the whole person, ensuring the screening and treatment of mental health is on equal footing to physical health, while reducing stigmatization. Suicide, as a major public health concern, requires this type of multifaceted approach to understanding and prevention.

It also requires us to be part of the solution. We should all be aware of the risk factors for suicide attempts and the available prevention resources. Risks include a history of mental illness, substance abuse, previous attempts, unemployment, loss of loved ones, and previous self-harming behaviors.

Services are available at PHP such as counseling, parent support and education, drug and alcohol prevention services, and case management assistance aimed at increasing protective factors that reduce the risk of suicide. These factors include improved or high self-esteem, social connectedness, and the availability of a strong support network.

While suicidal thinking presents differently for each person, a friend or family member should seek the help of experts if a person makes direct verbal statements, demonstrates dramatic changes in mood, loses interest in previously-enjoyed activities, is agitated, increases their drug/alcohol use, shows risky behavior, is aggressive or impulsive, expresses hopelessness or purposelessness, sleeps too much/too little, gains or loses a significant amount of weight, gives away prized possessions or makes a will, has had previous unresolved or recent suicide attempts, or reflects unusual happiness and peace after an intense period of turmoil.

If you or someone you know is in need of assistance, contact Rena Smith, clinical director for PHP’s counseling program at 805-705-9142, or you may call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK. If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, dial 911. Additional resources include the local crisis team, 1-888-868-1649, or youth under age 21 can call 1-888-334-2777.

If you or someone you know has experienced a traumatic event and needs support, contact Santa Barbara Response Network (SBRN) at 805-699-5608 or sbrncommand@gmail.com.

Dean A. Palius in CEO for People Helping People in the Santa Ynez Valley.

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