Suicide prevention methods in Alameda County focus on groups most at risk
on October 7, 2015
Alameda County Crisis Support Services is making strides in suicide prevention developing innovative programs—a teen text line and an older men’s support group—tailored to the two populations most at risk: youth and elderly men.
“Our county is very forward and committed to suicide prevention,” says Nancy Salamy, executive director of the support services, which is one of 11 credited crisis centers in California, a state with the eighth lowest suicide rate in the nation.
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s survey, conducted in August, painted a mixed picture of attitudes toward mental health and suicide awareness. Need for care is high: half of respondents said they believe they have a mental health issue, while 62 percent said they have never received mental health treatment.
Yet barriers to care remain equally high. “What’s of concern is that there still exists a stigma for receiving treatment,” said Mark Pollack, president of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Over half (52 percent) of the survey respondents said they believe stigma is a reason people don’t seek help. Men are more likely than women to say they wouldn’t tell anyone if they were contemplating suicide (16 versus 11 percent respectively). Men remain the group most at risk, accounting for 70 percent of suicides, according to a report by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2013.
But there is a bright spot. “The good news is nine out of 10 Americans value mental health and physical health equally,” Pollack adds. The survey found that nine in 10 Americans also think it’s possible to reduce suicide deaths through better access to treatment. People between the ages of 18 and 34 are more likely than older adults to consider it a sign of strength to see a mental health professional.
“People are also looking beyond traditional treatments to methods like peer support and coaching,” Pollack says, adding more work is needed to see who might benefit.
This is where Alameda’s age-appropriate outreach provides guidance. Teens text; isolated men over age 60 receive peer support. The teen text line started in 2011 as a way to connect teens in need with trained counselors through texting a hotline number. During its first eight months, the line received 128 texts initiating contact. This number increased to 386 and then 509 each fiscal year respectively. Counselors spread the word about the text line through a Teens for Life program the support services facilitates in many of the county’s schools. “The concern was: Can you make a connection through text?” says Salamy of the teen text line. “The outcome is yes, you can.”
The text line has also increased the number of young callers to the center’s crisis phone line since its implementation. “Out of about 6,500 calls, we would receive, maybe, 350 that we could identify as kids. Now [that number] has doubled,” says Salamy.
“Technology is changing and we just have to stay in the pulse of what’s going on,” says Mercedes Coleman, community education director of the support services. “When we hand out the text line information in our Teens For Life programs, it’s nice to be able to say, ‘This is just for you, for young people.’”
The center was one of the first in the country to start a text program. “It made an impact; we saw that instantly. It was an amazing leap. It really clicked” with teens, says Coleman.
But for older men, who are unlikely to admit they’re in crisis by calling or texting a crisis line, having a support group offers an activity to preemptively seek help. It also offers an antidote to isolation. “All of the people who have been coming here are single,” says Andrew Eliseev, facilitator of the men’s group. “They’re in their 60’s or older. They’ve never been married. They don’t have kids. Most of them are not in a relationship. They’re isolated.”
“Without the group, it’s not clear where the members would find human interaction,” Eliseev continues. “The name we have for the group is ‘Senior Men Telling Stories.’ The men come in and talk about whatever they want to talk about, whatever they want to share. Sometimes it’s something that happened last week; sometimes it’s something in the newspaper; sometimes it’s relationship issues.”
“The members say that the group is one place they look forward to during the week, the place where they get unconditional positive regard,” he continues. “Just yesterday, one of the members said he likes to tell the group the kind of stories that younger people, or people with families, tell when they come home from work. They are grateful for the group’s existence.”
Support groups and hotlines are just different paths to vital human interaction, he says, pointing out that the crisis line is not only used by people immediately considering suicide. Similarly, text conversations in the teen line cover topics ranging from family issues to eating disorders to general low moods. Some individuals call the crisis line three or four times a day just to talk. “For many of them, it’s their only interaction,” he says. “It’s definitely what keeps many of them afloat. That’s something many of them look forward to.”
The isolation among group members comes not from lack of trying: new social outlets don’t emerge naturally at their age. “Some of the men work; some try to volunteer. Some attend yoga or Eastern medicine groups. They have all attended cuddle parties,” he says, which are social gatherings meant to let people interact physically in a safe and nurturing way.
Finding successful supportive connections isn’t easy, Eliseev says, but he adds that here in the group, “They know people. They know me. They enjoy their two hours.”
The Alameda County Crisis Line can be reached at 1-(800)-309-2131.
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