The suicide prevention field found me like it finds most others, through a personal connection. I lost my friend, Arie, to suicide in 2010. I later lost my neighbor, Loretta, and my co-worker, Bruce, to suicide. I didn’t know much about mental health or suicide then—only that no one really knew how to talk about either.
After Arie died, I brought a mental health fundraiser to my high school called The Storytellers, a program started by the nonprofit, To Write Love on Her Arms (TWLOHA). The goal was to get my community talking about mental health and figure out better ways to help one another make it through tough times. It was clear that people wanted to share their experiences; The Storytellers campaign simply gave these conversations a platform. We held bake sales and coin wars, received donations from teachers, and led skits at our district’s elementary school about kindness and asking for help. Eventually we won the campaign in our bracket, which brought the national TWLOHA team to our school the following year for a mini concert and presentation. We did some pretty big things in my small town, but what I remember most are the letters.
Friends wrote me saying they were so grateful we were shedding light on things like depression, addiction, self-harm, and suicide. People were eager to learn about mental illness and ways to be there for friends. So often we are left struggling in silence with these issues. People were finally feeling understood and seen.
Watch this video to hear more from Leah about the ways mental health impacts our interactions with others.
When I got to college, some friends and I started a university chapter of TWLOHA, the same nonprofit that introduced The Storytellers campaign. Again, the platform gave voice to stories of struggle but, more importantly, stories of resilience, recovery, and finding help. We were talking about mental health boldly and doing our best to reframe the conversation to one of hope and healing.
Most people who attempt suicide don’t want to die. When someone is thinking about suicide, they typically feel alone and burdensome to others; they might feel like there’s no other way to end the pain they’re in. It’s easy to think we need expert-led large-scale interventions when people are in crisis, but sometimes it’s simple. There is power in listening without rushing to judgement or solutions. You can tell someone they matter and that you see their pain. Be patient and persistent. Tell them you won’t give up on them. Most importantly, be there.
QPR is one type of gatekeeper training. It stands for Question, Persuade, and Refer and there are already thousands in Wisconsin trained through this program. The training is not intended to be a form of counseling or to make you an expert; however, it is an educational experience to learn how to offer hope through positive action. It is a potentially lifesaving tool in the same way CPR is for cardiac events. Often, the biggest takeaway from a training like this is the relief people feel knowing that it’s okay to talk about these things. This is one way to break down stigma.
However, living with a mental illness shapes the way we achieve wellness. Mental health concerns, challenges, diagnoses, or whatever label we apply to our experiences, show up differently for everyone and it does take more than just talking about them to be well. I’m all for elevating the conversation and ending the stigma, but in a way that is honest about the intersectionality of mental health and the identities we hold. We need to be sure that, when we tell folks to get help, “help” is there in the form of relevant and accessible services.
Every day in America, 22 veterans die by suicide. We know that the rate of suicide is four times greater for LGB youth and two times greater for questioning youth compared to straight youth. We know that People of color, both adults and children, are less likely than their white counterparts to receive needed mental health care. We also know that the historical trauma suffered by Native Americans and Alaska Natives contributes to a high suicide rate among this community.
The most important thing I’ve learned through the collective mental health conversation is that we must listen to the voices of people with lived experience if we truly want to know how to help. By taking steps to continue this conversation, we are ensuring that our communities are brave spaces for people to speak their truth when it comes to sharing their experiences with suicide and mental health. Nothing ever gets better in silence. We have a responsibility to break that silence.
Leah Rolando is the Suicide Prevention Specialist with Mental Health America of Wisconsin. In this role, she coordinates Prevent Suicide Wisconsin, a statewide collaboration of partners in various organizations helping to present hope and strengthen the safety net in Wisconsin for folks who live with suicidal ideation. In addition to her statewide work, she serves on the Steering Committee for Prevent Suicide Greater Milwaukee, provides trainings as a QPR Instructor, and volunteers as a crisis counselor for the Crisis Text Line. Watch this video to hear more from Leah about the ways mental health impacts our interactions with others.