Joe Sammen - 2018 CHI

By Joe Sammen, Executive Director, Center for Health Progress

The first time my dad attempted suicide, I was shocked, devastated, deeply saddened, and angry. When it happened again just nine months later, I felt confused, and like I had little power to prevent another attempt. That was two years ago this summer, and thankfully, he’s now fully recovered from the deep depression and paralyzing anxiety that led to his attempts. Through various ups and downs, he was able to get the support he needed while navigating a fractured health care system that struggles to provide adequate treatment for those learning to live with mental illness. He’s now trained as a Peer Support Specialist through the Colorado Mental Wellness Network and actively engaged in helping others on their path to recovery.

I’ve talked openly about my dad’s suicide attempts with colleagues and friends. Strikingly, nearly every person I share my dad’s story with responds with a familiar refrain: that someone close to them—a parent, a sibling, a close friend—also attempted or died by suicide. It has long been a public health concern, with death by suicide consistently ranking as one of the leading causes of death in the United States. Colorado has the ninth highest suicide rate in the nation, a rate that has increased 34% since 1999.

Perhaps most troubling are the inequities in outcomes that have persisted for years. Native American populations have long had the highest rates of suicide among all racial groups. Colorado men are twice as likely as women to die by suicide and rural areas of Colorado have higher rates than urban areas. Young people are particularly affected by suicide, and a recent national survey shows that one in three high school youth have persistent feelings of hopelessness, one in six have considered suicide, and one in seven have made a suicide plan. Since so much stigma is associated with suicide, these statistics likely understate the scale of the problem and inequities due to underreporting.

I’ve noticed another theme as I’ve spoken to colleagues and friends about my dad’s story: silence. Everyone I’ve spoken to says they’ve rarely, if ever, talked about their connection to suicide. The stigma associated with it is just too much to bear. At Center for Health Progress, we want to be part of the movement to break this silence by starting an open dialogue about mental health issues. And we thought we’d start the conversation in our first ever video blog.

In the video, several staff share personal stories around their experience with mental illness, and I sit down with Justin Kruger, founder and CEO of Project Helping about current trends in mental health, stigma, and the future. We’re not mental health experts—just experts in our own experiences—and we’re still learning. In fact, after we filmed this, I learned that the mental health community has moved away from using the phrase “commit suicide” because it’s not a crime, it’s a call for help, and language matters.

We encourage you to join the conversation and connect to others with shared experiences or reach out to friends and family who might be struggling. As my father’s story highlights, recovery is possible.

If you need help yourself, know you’re not alone, and I encourage you to reach out to experts who can support you, including the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (call 1-800-273-8255) or the Crisis Text Line (text HOME to 741741).

Joe Sammen is Executive Director of the Center for Health Progress. His column first appeared here in July.