Community Health & Wellness

Suicide prevention coalition works to remove stigma around mental health

Posted on September 21st, 2023 By:

Editor’s note: This story deals with mental health issues, including suicide. If you or someone you know needs help, call or text 988, the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.

Suicide has been on the rise since the hands of time clicked over to a new millennium, but the risk increased during the pandemic.

Between 2021 and 2022, according to the Centers for Disease Control, suicide increased by 2.6%, with a suicide death every 11 minutes. It’s a difficult public health issue to tackle, but a group of dedicated local volunteers have taken on suicide prevention as a mission.

The Gig Harbor-Key Peninsula Suicide Prevention Coalition has been working to educate the public and reduce the stigma around depression and suicide for the past decade.

September is suicide prevention month. During the Gig Harbor City Council meeting on Sept. 11, Mayor Tracie Markely presented a proclamation to the coalition and  dedicated Sept. 10-16 as Suicide Prevention Week.

Mural of hope

Artist and Gig Harbor resident Hillarie Isackson created a mural that the city purchased and put on display at Jerisich Dock. Isackson is well-known locally for her murals, including one in support of Ukraine that was vandalized last year and repainted with a message of hope.

Hillarie Isackson poses with her mural during Gig Harbor Suicide Prevention Week. Photo courtesy of Hillarie Isackson

Her latest mural was first on display during a Makers Market in May. The city requested it for Suicide Prevention Week.

“It’s an interactive piece that is both playful and hopeful,” Isackson said. “The black and white images represent depression, while the colorful parts of the mural are for hope.”

People write messages on small, colorful flowers and butterflies made of wood and place them on the mural.

“I wanted it to be interactive so that people could write messages of hope on the flowers, and everything hopeful is a splash of color. When we come out of the depression we see things in a more beautiful way,” she said.

The mural became more popular than she expected, adorned with more than 100 messages of hope and love by the end of the week. Isackson ordered more wooden flowers and butterflies and will replenish the supply as long as the mural is up and people continue writing messages.

Opening the conversation

Dedicating a week to suicide prevention in the city is a way to open up the conversation and remove the cloak of silence around suicide and mental health, said Anne Nesbit of the coalition.

“If we can focus on one week at a time, where people can say, ‘I need help,’ and they can do it without bias or judgement, I do think that lives will be saved, and we can get people healthy and encourage hope for the next day.”

It’s something the coalition, made up of people from various walks of life, works on year-round. Nesbit represents the Key Peninsula Fire District on the coalition, and said that her role mostly revolves around education.

She got involved when, while working as an emergency room technician at St. Anthony Hospital, she learned of a suicide pact in the community. She is now the public information officer for the fire district.

“We lost a couple of teenagers,” she said. “That was kind of the impetus that got this coalition going, and that’s how I got involved.”

Mental Health First Aid

Nesbit said advocacy groups developed several good curricula to address mental health. That includes the Mental Health First Aid program, developed in Australia and available locally through a grant obtained by the Tacoma-Pierce County Department of Health. Mental Health First Aid includes a curriculum for teenagers in grades 10 through 12.

“It also has a curriculum for adults who work with teens, so now we have people getting the same information. And when we tell teens to go to a trusted adult, we have adults who can fill that role,” Nesbit said.

The idea is to educate youth on how to identify when a peer is struggling, she said.

Every student in those grades at Henderson Bay High School received the training, Nesbit said.

“They don’t get credit for their lived experience with mental health, and we’ve got a lot of really educated young people out there who will make a giant positive step forward. That’s where I’m most active, youth, and giving community talks,” Nesbit said.

Decreasing stigma

When the coalition began, Judd Morris was the community director of the Key Peninsula Family Resource Center in Vaughn. In his social work career, he said he spent some years in crisis intervention.

He worked with the Peninsula School District during the early days of the coalition, when the district realized there was a crisis. The district brought in a consultant from Seattle, and the momentum for the coalition began to build, he said.

“What we are about is not just saving people, but going upstream to figure out where the depression is,” Morris said.

Talking about depression and suicide decreases the stigma, he said.

“Talk saves lives,” Morris said. “Right now suicide is the leading cause of teen deaths.”

Signs on the bridge

The coalition identified the Tacoma Narrows Bridge as a point of crisis. It worked to get signs installed there with messages of hope and a phone number to call for help. (The signs will soon be updated to include the phone number for the new national suicide hotline, 988. Those phone numbers currently on the sign still go through to people who can help.)

Signs installed on posts of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge by the Gig Harbor-Key Peninsula Suicide Prevention Coalition provide messages of hope and phone numbers to call for help. Photo courtesy of Anne Nesbit

“We know it has saved at least three people because they told us. They called and decided not to jump,” Nesbit said.

Past president Bob Anderson helped found the coalition and stepped down as president in June. He lost a son to suicide in 1998. The pain of that death spurred him to do something to prevent others from living with that pain. He said the work has been his therapy.

“We recognize that the highest rate of suicide (overall) are not young people, it’s old men like myself, and we keep open the door to working with aged groups,” Anderson said. “We know that women have a higher suicide attempt rate, but men complete more often because of guns.”

Almost everyone who works with the coalition has had close contact with someone who has died from suicide, he said.

Bringing in young people

Incoming president Thelma Brown has a background in education. She worked as a principal, counselor, and teacher in Inglewood, Calif.

She recruited five youth to be trained as mental health first aid responders and serve on the coalition board. Their insights into the No. 1 cause of death among their peers will help steer the coalition, she said.

Thelma Brown of the Gig Harbor Key Peninsula Suicide Prevention Coalition speaks at a Pierce County Council meeting. Photo courtesy Pierce County

“I think it’s critical that students be a part of the board as the youth mental health first aiders,” Brown said. “The eyes and ears at the school. They can see and hear things, and maybe go get help for someone. Kids need to be aware of the signs. That will also help us as a society, because I think we are broken.”

If you, or someone you know needs help, call the nation suicide hotline at 988.