This fall marks a time of growing concern for the mental health and well-being of the citizens of our country. Our family knows loss.
Cameron Wilder was 17 years old. The son of one of the authors and nephew of the other, Cameron wowed audiences with his singing and acting. He stood up for peers who were bullied or left out. Cameron died just after starting his junior year of high school. His forever decision was seven years ago.
Survivors of suicide — living anniversaries of loss —- are moved to protect others and sound the alarm when needed.
We, and the people we love, face more months of the COVID-19 pandemic, rising infections and death tolls, and national economic and societal challenges. Together we face:
- Dark days of fall and winter, social distancing and isolation;
- Uncertainties about school and child care;
- Sporting events canceled;
- Crushing unemployment, with people unable to pay rent and people who are hungry or homeless;
- A potential “twindemic”: Influenza and COVID-19 combined could increase infections and death rates;
- The November elections.
Are we as a nation prepared to prevent COVID-19’s increase in suicide? We are already seeing increases in leading risk factors: depression, anxiety, drug and alcohol use, domestic violence and child abuse.
Building blocks for coordinating COVID-19 mental-health campaigns already exist in many communities. They include mental-health professionals and social workers, school counselors, medical and nursing professionals, medical reserve corps, public-health districts and many others. Who else can and will help? Survivors of suicide, nongovernmental organizations working in mental health, faith communities, tribal elders and cultural leaders, emergency responders, state and local officials and so many others.
We are asking the National Governors Association and the National Congress of American Indians to step up. State and tribal sovereigns should encourage suicide prevention first-aid training to support our communities through the dark days ahead. Coordinated mental-health campaigns should run through Memorial Day 2021.
Death by suicide is not a partisan issue. We need governors to work together, coordinating state resources across political boundaries. Idaho, Washington and Oregon are taking first steps to work across state boundaries in this effort.
We don’t have time for “reinventing wheels,” especially for those at risk. Models exist. Others are launching. Located between Seattle and Tacoma is Vashon Island, served by one of America’s volunteer Medical Reserve Corps (MRCs). The Vashon MRC has two model programs being exported to other rural and at-risk communities: community-based COVID-19 testing, and mental-health and spiritual support.
In these dark times, mental-health professionals and spiritual leaders are stepping up to help. The Vashon MRC’s Community Care Team has created a crisis help line and online support groups facilitated by volunteer mental-health professionals and spiritual leaders. The team has developed an exportable web-based mental-health tool kit and will soon launch a suicide prevention campaign. The campaign integrates diverse community partners with mental-health providers, offering free trainings in suicide prevention.
What can you do to help? Watch for those around you who may be struggling. Ask if they are OK. Educate yourself on suicide-prevention resources and trainings. Volunteer to help those in need and help them through these challenging times.
One action you can take is to support your local Medical Reserve Corps. Congress has cut the federal MRC funding to $6 million annually needed to support 839 MRC units and 175,000 volunteers. The president proposes cutting more. Yet MRCs nationwide protect our communities against COVID-19 while also responding to hurricanes, fires, floods and more.
Finally, if you are struggling, or thinking of harming yourself, call 800-273-TALK (8255) or text HOME to 741-741. We are all in this together.
John Osborn is an emergency room physician in Seattle, co-coordinates the Vashon Medical Reserve Corps and is physician adviser to Camp Chaparral, serving Indian combat veterans with PTSD and Veterans Affairs staff.
Stewart Wilder is president of the Idaho Suicide Prevention Coalition and LiveWilder Foundation, co-chair of the Idaho Suicide Prevention Action Collective and member of the Idaho Governor’s Council on Suicide Prevention.