Progress on curbing suicide — but more can be done

The silhouette of a sad man. (Photo: Freedom Studio, via Shutterstock)

This is Suicide Prevention Week – a reminder that by learning the warning signs of suicide and how to intervene, every Californian has the opportunity to be a lifesaver.  As California’s community of mental health professionals, advocates and families affected by suicide ramp up our public education efforts this week, we are also calling on California’s elected leaders to recognize their particular responsibility and opportunity to save lives by investing in effective crisis support.

California callers reached out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 182,000 times between June 2015 and May 2016.

California has long been a leader in addressing the personal and public health toll of suicide. Since the passage of the Mental Health Services Act (Proposition 63), the landmark 2004 voter initiative, California has made a significant investment in programs that are intended to prevent suicide, promote mental wellness and connect individuals with help before they reach a crisis point. California counties have partnered through the California Mental Health Services Authority (CalMHSA) to deploy resources and strategies that empower everyone from youth to seniors, with the tools, technologies, resources and crisis support needed to prevent suicide.

Through CalMHSA’s efforts, California’s crisis lines expanded their capacity, staffing and invested in technology to meet the needs of a growing, diverse population.  They trained thousands of Californians in suicide awareness and response. California callers reached out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 182,000 times between June 2015 and May 2016.

The success of this investment and statewide approach is evident. A recent RAND Corporation study found that California’s crisis hotlines are a vital resource for California’s communities. California’s suicide hotline responders established good rapport with callers and helped reduce distress. California’s crisis services have also implemented language lines in Korean, Vietnamese and Spanish, where callers can access help in their preferred language, and utilize new technologies such as web and text-based crisis services, which RAND identifies as a key suicide prevention strategy for California’s future.

Now, with California’s investment of county funding exhausted, California’s suicide prevention crisis centers are now at a crossroads.  Without sustainable and robust investment, callers may experience longer wait times, and with surveys showing people with mental health challenges increasingly more comfortable with online or text chats versus traditional phone support, investments in these new technologies will be stifled.

A new one-time commitment of $4 million by state leaders this year will temporarily help maintain crisis services that meet the needs of Californians of a population diverse in race, ethnicity, age, geography, and sexual orientation. An ongoing source of funding must be identified to ensure that these vital services not only remain intact, but grow to serve the emerging needs of California’s diverse communities.

From my vantage point as a mental health professional, I’ve seen how California’s suicide prevention organizations save lives and empower survivors of suicide attempts and their families to become active in helping others. CalMHSA’s partnerships with these organizations have helped California leap ahead in suicide prevention efforts.  This Suicide Prevention Week, I challenge California’s leaders to maintain and strengthen this successful investment – turning back from our progress literally puts lives at risk.

On behalf of the counties working together through CalMHSA, I am proud of California’s suicide prevention efforts and to partner with the outstanding California crisis centers that deliver urgently needed help to Californians.

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The Lifeline will connect you to a trained crisis counselor at your nearest local crisis center, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. For Spanish language counselors, call 1-888-628-9454.

For more information on the suicide prevention efforts underway in California and to get involved, visit www.eachmindmatters.org, www.suicideispreventable.org, andwww.elsuicidioesprevenible.org.

Ed’s Note: Dr. Wayne Clark is the executive director of the California Mental Health Services Authority, an organization of county governments working to improve mental health outcomes for individuals, families, and communities in California. 

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