Content warning: the following story contains descriptions of suicide. If you or someone you know is struggling, contact the Multnomah County Behavioral Health Call Center at 503-988-4888. We are here to listen.
Deandre Kenyanjui was driving on the Burnside Bridge when he saw someone walking in despair toward the rail — and then climb it to jump over. Immediately, Kenyanjui made a U-turn. He got out of his car and pulled the person to safety.
Kenyanjui said his values and his lived experience compelled him to spring into action, “I had been in his position as well.”
“I was there at the right time,” said Kenyanjui, a consumer engagement specialist for the Office of Consumer Engagement in the Health Department’s Behavioral Health Division.
Three weeks later, he said, a similar situation occurred with another person. That time, he was able to call the County’s crisis team for help.
Kenyanjui was among a group of experts and people with lived experience who shared personal stories about how suicide has affected their lives when the Board of Commissioners met Thursday, Sept. 22 and proclaimed September 2022 as Suicide Awareness Month in Multnomah County.
The proclamation serves to encourage County residents to increase their awareness of people who may be struggling with challenges in their lives and to reach out to connect in any way they can.
The proclamation also recognizes suicide as a public health and equity issue, stating that people of color are disproportionately affected by suicide, specifically American Indian/Alaska Natives and the Latiné community. The LBTQI+ community is also at a higher risk of suicide. People who identfiy as transgender are nearly 12 times more likely to attempt suicide than the overall population.
Suicide is the ninth-leading cause of death among American Indian/Alaska Native people, compared to non-Hispanic people of all races, where suicide is the 12th-leading cause of death. And according to the CDC, among high school students who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual, 23.4% reported a suicide attempt, compared to 6.4% of students who identify as heterosexual.
And while suicide rates have stayed flat locally, rates of suicidality have been rising.
Suicidality refers to the risk of suicide and is usually indicated by suicidal ideation or intent, and it can include suicidal thoughts, plans or attempts. Suicide and suicidality affect people of all ages, and stressors such as housing, economic stressors, health and relationship issues can add to someone’s mental health burden.
Multnomah County continues to raise awareness through suicide prevention efforts to save lives. The Behavioral Health Division’s “Reach Out” campaign will reach community members through social media networks, health center lobby screens and other platforms to communicate messages of hope and tips to help people recognize others who would benefit from connection.
Dennis Lundberg with Janus Youth Programs spoke about the experience of homeless youth downtown during the COVID-19 pandemic and the impact it has had on young people. The interruption in services, and connections, was particularly difficult for young people who were already vulnerable.
“Almost overnight many of us were sent home,” he said, leaving young people who were experiencing homelessness to get by on their own.
The result: increases in violence, substance use, self-harm and suicidality.
Lundberg emphasized the vulnerability of young people in the community. Since March 2020, Lundberg said, 17 clients or former clients have died, most under the age of 30.
Each time, Lundberg said, he and his team have used a tragedy response plan.
“We work to mitigate the vicarious trauma that death will have to our staff and other clients,” said Lundberg.
This tragedy response plan accounts not just for the immediate aftermath of a death but the year that follows a death, while people are grieving.
Every day and night, Lundberg said he sees homeless youth experience acute mental health symptoms, self-harm and suicidality.
Canada Taylor Parker, suicide prevention coordinator for the Behavioral Health Division, shared her personal story, and talked about how those experiences have fueled her passion for the work she does today.
At age 8, Taylor Parker first attempted suicide, with other attempts following when she was a teenager. She said having access to healthcare, resources and people who cared about her — including teachers and counselors — helped her continue in life. At 18, Taylor Parker went to therapy.
Today, Taylor Parker’s works to interrupt patterns that might lead to additional suicides by ensuring someone is present after any suicide death of a young person between 14 and 24 years old. She also carries the responsibility of providing support for people of all ages and works to figure out how she can provide support and fulfill their needs.
Taylor Parker reflected on her personal experience. Other young people who died by suicide had the same social factors as she did, but not always the same protective factors, such as adults who cared or access to counseling.
After a suicide, Taylor Parker calls parents, family and those who were around the person who died, and responds with empathy, support, care and compassion. She connects them with any services they need.
“Their death teaches us lessons so we can prevent more deaths from happening,” said Taylor Parker.
“What helps us to be well is when we have a sense of hope, meaning and purpose,” said Julie Dodge, interim director of the Behavioral Health Division.
Whether it’s creating a community for youth experiencing homelessness downtown, preventing suicides by connecting with families and friends of someone who has died, or taking action and connecting with a stranger, Multnomah County is investing in work that reaches those who are affected by suicide.
“This work can be more efficient together,” said Dodge, when talking about the role someone can play for a sister, brother, friend or even a stranger.
The proclamation included ways in which community members can get involved and trained to help.
The Get Trained to Help program offers free training for community members on how to provide immediate help for people who are in distress. This is available for anyone 18 or older.
For help with immediate crises, referrals to services, and resources, Multnomah County has a Behavioral Health Call Center. The crisis line can be found at 503-988-4888. This is in addition to the new national number, 988, that offers trained crisis counselors 24/7 to help people who are experiencing suicidal, substance use, and/or mental health crisis.
Commissioner Sharon Meieran, spoke about the importance of people simply connecting with one another, “and we have the opportunity to be those people for others,” she said.
“Prevention is possible,” said Commissioner Susheela Jayapal. “One contact can make a difference.”
Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson emphasized the continuing need for Multnomah’s investments in preventing suicide.
“We need to continue to champion the life-saving and effective programs that make a difference,” she said.
“When people don’t have hope, that is when they don’t see a way out,” Commissioner Lori Stegmann said about the work that people like Kenyanjui, Lundberg and Taylor Parker do in their jobs and communities. “The role that you all play to provide that hope is so important.”
Chair Deborah Kafoury recognized the struggles workers experience when helping youth and individuals in distress.“I hope that you are taking time out for yourselves and listening to the words you’re telling other people,” she said, “because you are special, and you make our world a better place. You all have our gratitude, respect and love.”