I’m always impressed by the people and organizations that stake their claim in the spaces we don’t like to talk about. Brave pioneers trudging into the wilderness of our discomfort so later we can have railways and cities where once there was desert. Cass Walton, the director of Pikes Peak Suicide Prevention Partnership (PPSPP), is one of these people.
I’ve had the privilege of meeting Cass multiple times. Each time I’m amazed at the energy of grit and spunk she carries with her. Though I think she would call it purpose. Our most recent discussion centered on mental health and how we’re addressing it in Colorado Springs. Despite my own personal experience and advocacy on this topic, I walked away with fresh inspiration.
Some topics are commonly discussed but only partially understood. Climate change has a tacit general acceptance, but how many climate researchers does the average person know? We accept electric eels exist, but what kind of double A batteries do those things take? What weird organ(s) do they possess that allows them to electrically yeet their predators? Much like taser-bearing fish, mental health is widely acknowledged but not so widely understood.
Going deeper into this topic (mental health, not the eels), Cass perfectly illuminated the point. “It’s about the language. Most people will not experience what we understand as acute mental illness. Most suicides occur with people who are experiencing generalized mental health anguish met with a specific situational crisis”.
This sounds preventable. If most of these tragedies are the everyday person in a perfect storm, why are we missing what’s right in front of us? The answer is language. And here, the point becomes profound. People are afraid to see themselves as suffering from acute mental illness. And that fear is primarily because of the extreme labels that come with asking for help. The diagnosis of “mental illness” is still a scarlet A.
We should not take silence as a sign of success. The stats are clear. On the topic of depression alone, 8.4% of adults in the United States have experienced at least one major depressive episode. Amongst teenagers, the number is 17%. “An estimated 19.1% of U.S. adults had any anxiety disorder in the past year”. “An estimated 31.1% of U.S. adults experience any anxiety disorder at some time in their lives”. (Source: nimh.nih.gov) On our social feeds, we curate the kinds of lives we think others will follow. But, as we all know, the truth is often a different story.
So how do we get people to speak up on an issue no one wants to discuss? Cass thinks it’s about going beyond talk to action. “I hate mottos because they don’t come with instructions… it’s just like when we tell people ‘It’s ok to not be ok’ and we tell people to normalize that... but then we don’t give people action items for how to normalize that”.
PPSPP is committed to a multi-year effort to address an uncomfortable topic and willing to do it at a snail’s pace, moving a network of providers and then an entire community past stigma. For Cass, it starts with leading by example. “When we’re asking people to ‘collaborate’ or ‘partner’ I knew we would need to demonstrate it first… let me see if I can do what I’m asking others to do.”
I asked Cass what we’re missing in the work.
“The biggest demographic where we have yet to see any efficacy in our work is with the working-age male. It is still men across our country that are dying by suicide. It is still men that are not accessing mental health services.”
This is really not surprising when you consider the story behind these numbers. Stigma keeps anyone struggling in silence. And there are not many stigmas more ingrained from childhood as the expectations on how men should handle their emotions. The ripple effect of this is clear. The boys we tell today to hide their tears become the fathers who tomorrow struggle to navigate mental health. And those struggles are then felt by future family systems.
But Cass is not giving up. Pulling from the successful strategies used to address youth suicides, PPSPP is looking to trusted messengers.
“I think of the strategies that we used to begin creating awareness for our youth... who are the stakeholders in our youth? Educators and parents. That’s who we needed to go to. And if we look at the number of individuals in our schools, our parents or grandparents, who we have trained in suicide prevention over the years, that number has probably quadrupled. And so then I think about, who are the stakeholders for men?”
Throughout the conversation, I’m learning afresh that words matter, especially when lives are at risk. What can seem like an uncomfortable question can, in no uncertain terms, save lives. Cass told me that simple questions like “Have you been considering suicide?” or “Do you have a plan?” make a massive difference. In fact, 85% of people planning suicide will reverse their plan when they realize that someone cares and will enter into their experience. Most specifically, when they are invited to talk.
While the conversations are hard, and the challenges are not solvable overnight, PPSPP is showing us what’s possible when we lean into our discomfort. If you’d like to learn more about PPSPP and its incredible mission, you can find more information at PikesPeakSuicidePrevention.org.