By SARA ARTHURS
Every single person in Hancock County has at some point interacted with someone who was having suicidal thoughts, said Ellyn Schmiesing. But if you don’t know what to look for, you won’t be able to help.
Schmiesing is executive director at Focus, a nonprofit center for people in recovery from mental health, substance abuse or trauma issues. She said it can be tough “when you feel like you’re down in a hole and there’s no light” — and, perhaps, that whatever you do seems to make the hole deeper. Schmiesing said isolation is a big risk factor for people who are suicidal, and she pointed out that this doesn’t just mean physical isolation. Sometimes, you might sit in a room full of people but still feel alone, “not having that sense of community, that sense of belonging.”
But at the same time, she has learned through her work that people are very resilient. During the last fiscal year, Focus served 889 unique individuals.
“To me, that is 889 stories of not just survival, but resilience,” Schmiesing said.
Dr. Christian Steiner, a psychiatrist at the Psychiatric Center of Northwest Ohio, said he sees healing “every day.” Being suicidal is “very much a treatable condition,” and “I see people on a daily basis who have overcome this” and gone on to live healthy, happy lives, he said.
Suicidal thoughts are more common than people may realize: The 2018 Hancock County Community Health Assessment, released last spring, found that 5% of adults surveyed said they had considered attempting suicide in the past 12 months.
Steiner has done background research on Hancock County residents who died by suicide and learned that more than half had not interacted with the health care system for mental health issues. Steiner said many of these people might have had a diagnosable mental health condition, but were never actually diagnosed. Because of this, there’s increasingly a push to screen for mental health in primary care.
Substance abuse also puts people more at risk. Three-quarters of people who die by suicide are under the influence of alcohol or other drugs at the time, Steiner said.
He said those most at risk of suicide include: people who live alone; people who are struggling with physical illness, pre-existing mental health issues or substance abuse; widows and widowers; and anyone who has previously attempted suicide. Physical health issues can also play a role, including chronic pain and conditions like cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and HIV.
Steiner has encountered cases where people in the early stages of dementia killed themselves “to save face.” Now, if staff in his office need to reveal a dementia diagnosis, they do it with a family member present and encourage making a safety plan.
Steiner said there’s still a stigma related to seeking mental health care, although it’s not as bad as it once was. People working in fields like first response or nursing are afraid of being “blackballed,” but he pointed out that mental health is considered protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
And, he said, “too many movies and TV shows” give a misconception of what a psychiatrist is. When you go to a doctor’s appointment with him, you won’t have to lie on a couch and talk about your mother or your deepest, darkest secret, he said. Steiner does ask for an “encapsulated life story,” and you’ll be asked to talk about what’s bothering you.
He said it’s just like any other doctor’s appointment — he will ask when your symptoms started, just as a primary care doctor might ask when your cold started.
“There are many, many, many confidentiality laws in place,” he said.
Concerned about a loved one?
If you’re concerned about a loved one who may be suicidal, “don’t be confrontational,” Steiner said. “Don’t be judgmental. Be concerned.” He said it’s been proven that asking a person if they are thinking about suicide does not increase the likelihood that they will do so. If the person answers yes, try to safely get them help as soon as possible, he advised.
“A big deterrent of suicide is talking about suicide,” Schmiesing said. When someone asks the person if they are OK, “it takes that isolation and makes it go ‘poof.'” She has heard many people say, “over and over again, how much of a relief it was to tell somebody” about their suicidal thoughts.
Schmiesing encouraged people who have loved ones with mental health issues to take a Mental Health First Aid class. These classes are similar to CPR, but teach the participants how to respond to someone having a mental health crisis.
Schmiesing said she sees people who have “been in those dark places” and then reached out for help, or talked to someone who talked to someone. And it makes a difference. She has met people who come into Focus who “haven’t had a suicidal thought in years,” although they previously had.
“They’ve built a life of resilience,” she said.
For people dealing with less severe mental health issues, addressing them before they become worse can make a difference. If you are “struggling with some tough stuff … look at what coping skills you do have,” Schmiesing said. She added that it’s easier to make plans for how to care for yourself when you are doing OK than when you are in a crisis and “your brain is real busy with other things.” She said Focus teaches the Wellness Recovery Action Plan approach, in which people write down a plan for their overall wellness, including a list of coping skills and strategies. That way, they have the plan ready if they do need it.
Schmiesing said “fear of the unknown” can keep people from reaching out for help.
“It can be scary” to finally admit that something is wrong, she said, but “I guarantee you that it is the most empowering thing” you can do for yourself.
Focus is located at 509 W. Trenton Ave. in Findlay and can be reached at 419-423-5071. The agency does not provide counseling on site, but offers a place where people seeking recovery can connect with others with similar experiences. The Psychiatric Center of Northwest Ohio, part of Blanchard Valley Health System, can be reached at 419-429-6480.
Arthurs: 419-427-8494 Send an E-mail to Sara Arthurs