Lynn Smith-Stott was a teenager when she experienced her first struggles with thoughts of suicide. She got the help she needed, but not the right kind of help to fully heal. That marked the beginning of a lifelong battle.
Suicide continued to impact Smith-Stott’s life as she grew older. She tragically lost her own father to suicide when he was an older adult. Paradoxically, he appeared better before things took a turn for the worse. Unfortunately, she said, people sometimes feel better when they’ve committed themselves to a plan to die by suicide.
Six years ago, Smith-Stott once again found herself in a seemingly impossible situation, with no hope that she was ever going to find happiness again. She made a plan to kill herself. That’s when she miraculously remembered the story of a suicide survivor, who was grateful to have another chance at life.
That memory was just enough to cause Smith-Stott to accept help. Today, she oversees the Office of Consumer Engagement, which incorporates the voices of people with lived experiences into the County’s behavioral health services. She uses her job as a platform to raise awareness about mental health and addiction.
“Now, my life has turned around totally, not that I don’t still have challenges at times,” Smith-Stott said. “I have a whole new foundation of friends who support me. I have a job that I love, and this job allows me to come before you and share my experience with the intention of supporting others who may have similar challenges.”
“Be the one” to help another person find hope
Smith-Stott was an invited guest Thursday, Sept. 30, as the Board of County Commissioners proclaimed September 2021 “Suicide Prevention Month” in Multnomah County. The proclamation aims to reduce stigma by encouraging open conversations about suicide. This year’s theme — “Be the one to:” — raises awareness about the ways people can support others in getting help and finding hope.
Multnomah County recognizes suicide as a public health issue. Through a range of physical and behavioral health services, including culturally appropriate care, the County is committed to getting people the right kind of help at the right time.
Commissioner Sharon Meieran, who sponsored the proclamation, said she sees firsthand the impacts of suicide as an emergency room physician. She says she has witnessed people’s struggles with suicide, along with the despair of family and loved ones who are affected.
“Suicide is preventable,” Commissioner Meieran said. “We may not know which specific gesture or interaction or what it is that may bring hope and connection to someone at risk, which is why it’s so important and meaningful . . . to ‘be the one to’ make that connection, to be there for someone.”
Anyone can experience a suicidal crisis, but some populations are more at risk than others. Those include older adults, youth, veterans, rural residents, workers in high-risk jobs and people experiencing behavioral health challenges. The LGBTQ+ community, along with some communities of color — especially Native American and Latinx people — are also at particularly high risk.
“I think the last two years have been so stressful and traumatic for all of us, and especially for folks who have been on the front line of the pandemic, for children and kids who have been isolated,” said Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson. “This is just another way to show how mental health is a key piece of all of the physical health work that we do.”
Raising awareness about the struggles of youth
Jenny Duan is a senior at Jesuit High School who was part of the panel of speakers at the board meeting. She’s also a mental health advocate who has served as a youth mental health advisor through the Oregon Chinese Coalition. As a young person, she says the first step to better mental wellness is building community.
Through conversations with youth, Duan said isolation and loneliness are some of the most significant factors affecting mental health among young people. Sometimes, she said, people don’t have the words to describe what they’re feeling, or they’re afraid of burdening others with their feelings.
Suicide Prevention Month creates an opportunity for people to talk about their experiences, she said, which creates hope. By creating a culture where people can speak openly about suicide, she hopes that communities can better manage the struggles they’re experiencing.
“I think having awareness for suicide prevention month is really important because it enables people and it empowers people to speak out, to reach out, and to connect with others and to stand up for themselves,” Duan said.
In the age of social media, a world shaped by COVID-19 and other pressures affecting young people, youth are facing unique challenges. That serves to exacerbate the loneliness and isolation some young people face. Commissioner Lori Stegmann said more investments in youth services, along with simply connecting with one another, could go a long way.
“I think the bottom line is that we all just want to know that we matter,” Commissioner Stegmann said. “We don’t hear that in a time of social media and our separateness due to the pandemic. Maybe sometimes we get hugs or handshakes that help convey that message, but we’re so separated right now and, frankly, we’re starving for that interaction with one another.”
“Suicide is a solution, but it’s not the problem”
Canada Taylor Parker joined the County 11 months ago as the Behavioral Health Division’s suicide prevention coordinator. As an expert in behavioral health and death care, she says preventing suicide first starts with addressing the root causes — what causes people to want to take their lives?
Making our neighborhood more livable, Taylor Parker said, is one of the keys to making people feel more connected to their community. That involves reducing gun violence, ending poverty, making sure people are housed, and making sure people are seen and heard for who they are, she said.
Taylor Parker is in the middle of a research project seeking to better understand suicide in Multnomah County, specifically. And while her research is still in progress, she has a message: communities are struggling.
“I can confirm for you people are hurting,” she said. “Suicide is a solution, but it’s not the problem itself. People see suicide as a solution to their pain and suffering.”
Many people who die by suicide also may be suffering from medical issues. They might have mental health and addiction issues. Or they could be impacted by violence and trauma.
To add to the problem, Taylor Parker said, people are afraid to talk about grief and suicide. As part of her job, she reaches out to families affected by suicide. She asks what resources they need. Sometimes she simply listens and offers people a safe space to grieve or be heard.
“I was so, so struck by your statement that suicide is a solution, but it’s not the problem,” Commissioner Susheela Jayapal said. “I was struck by it because it’s eloquent and powerful and it points us to the importance of the work that the County does on the large scale.”
One way to be part of the solution, Taylor Parker said, is to get trained to help. Through a partnership among Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties, community members can register for free mental health trainings.
Through the trainings, participants will learn how to identify, understand and respond to someone experiencing a mental health crisis. Participants also learn how to spot the risk factors for mental health and addiction. The courses also inform people on how to use evidence-based actions to connect others to crisis and non-crisis resources.
One two-day course, Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST), teaches how to identify when someone may be at risk for suicide, how to intervene and how to connect the person with supports to keep them safe. The course is recommended for anyone looking for advanced suicide intervention skills, especially people working in education, healthcare, law enforcement, senior care, and social services.
To sign up for a course, visit Get Trained To Help and register for an upcoming class. Classes are available for anyone 18 years of age or older. All trainings are free to the participants.
“I’m grateful that as a community we’re making more room for people to be open about their struggles, and to know that they’re not alone and that help is available,” Chair Deborah Kafoury said. “So I hope today, if someone out there is watching, that they know that they can be that stabilizing force, they can be the help that someone needs. But also, if they, themselves, are hurting, to know that there are people who care.”