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For Suicide Prevention Month, community organizations educate on mental health and crisis response

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Content warning: The text below contains mention of suicide. Students add notes and flowers to a memorial in the Pit on Oct. 14, 2021. The memorial commemorates students who died by suicide during the fall semester of 2021.

Content warning: This article contains mention of suicide and self-harm.

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September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, and community members and organizations throughout Orange County are hosting events to promote awareness and educate residents.

In 2020, there were 1,436 suicide deaths among North Carolina residents. In Durham and Orange Counties, 206 community members lost their lives to suicide between 2016 and 2020.

The Orange County Health Department held an adult mental health first aid training on Sept. 16, and will hold another on Sept. 23 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

This week's event, a “Professional Partners” training, is designed for employers, police officers, hospital staff and first responders and will take place at the Whitted Human Services Center in Hillsborough.

Barb Maier, the immediate past president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Orange County, said mental health first aid trainings are crucial because mental illness is widespread throughout the county. 

“If you don’t understand how to interact with someone who is in the middle of an episode, you’re going to be doing all the wrong things to make the illness worse,” she said. 

The Durham County Department of Public Health and the Orange County Health Department will also hold a Suicide Prevention and Awareness Walk along with other community groups on Thursday, Sept. 29 from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Leigh Farm Park in Durham.

Disproportionate impacts

Thava Mahadevan, director of operations for the UNC Center for Excellence in Community Mental Health, said the community is seeing a large number of individuals with anxiety and depression, from elementary-aged children to college students.  

According to the North Carolina State Center for Health Statistics (NCSCHS), suicide is the second leading cause of death for youth ages 10 to 18 in North Carolina and the third leading cause of death for those 19 to 34 years old. 

To provide training and education for youth suicide prevention, the NCSCHS report suggests providing school-based resources that include the needs of students of color and those who identify as LGBTQIA+. 

According to a 2020 study, 82 percent of transgender individuals have considered suicide and 40 percent have attempted suicide, with heightened numbers among youth.

UNC sophomore Jessica Igollo-Ogele said current events and the government not being receptive to people's needs are causes of stress.

"For me, too, being a Black person, a lot of the racial divide in the country can be stressful sometimes," she said.

Mahadevan said social media has a particularly strong effect on younger people. He said that after people utilize social media for a period of time, they begin to feel worse.

He added that network television and 24/7 news feeds tend to sensationalize events and cause people to feel as if the entire world is in chaos, worsening their mental health.

John Gilmore, director for the UNC Center for Excellence in Community Mental Health, said the loss of a sense of community and social bonds has caused mental health to worsen both in Chapel Hill and throughout the country. Both the COVID-19 pandemic and the increased presence of social media have contributed to that loss of social interaction, he said. 

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“I think that there’s a lot of forces that make that a really big problem, because we need social interactions,” Gilmore said. “We need to know our place in the community, in the world, and it’s much much harder for everybody, and especially teenagers that are just kind of learning how to do that.”

Proactively protecting mental health

Mahadevan said there are a variety of simple things that people can do to protect their mental health and prevent issues before they become more serious. He stressed the importance of healthy eating, sleep and exercise habits, along with the significance of having a daily routine.   

“Another piece is a sense of community, whether it’s joining a civic group, joining a church, whatever works, '' he said. “Being around people is incredibly helpful because loneliness is a huge factor and really a risk factor for those who are already susceptible to depression, anxiety, and other conditions.”

Gilmore said while Chapel Hill probably has more places to engage in mental health care treatment than in other places around the state, it can still be difficult for people to find timely appointments with therapists in the community.

Mahadevan said that the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on clinicians. He added that many organizations are struggling with hiring clinical social workers and psychologists.

“If people don’t get care when they need it, they unfortunately end up at higher levels of care like the emergency room, or it turns into a crisis,” he said.

Gilmore said there is a stigma around admitting to having a mental health problem.

Maier said a good way to support a loved one struggling with their mental health is to make yourself available to that person in a non-judgmental and supportive way. Her advice is that even though it is difficult and scary to do, asking someone directly if they feel like hurting themselves or someone else is important to do if they show any indication of self-harm.   

Igollo-Ogele said that there is often a negative representation of people who are suicidal. She said that people often see those struggling with suicidal thoughts being "attention-seeking."   

“There’s not really a space for people who are maybe suicidal and who don’t actually want to go through with it, to get the help that they need because there’s so much shame and condemnation surrounding it,” she said. 

Igollo-Ogele added that people don’t necessarily need to do extravagant gestures to support their loved ones struggling with mental health. She said even eating a meal with a friend can be helpful.  

She said although “just doing what makes you happy” is a cliche, people don’t really give themselves enough time to do what they enjoy. 

Mental health resources

If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis, call the national helpline at 988. The line is available 24/7 via call or text, and is free and confidential.

UNC students who need assistance during this time may contact Counseling and Psychological Services or Student Wellness. CAPS can be reached 24/7 by phone at 919-966-3658. University employees can reach out to the Employee Assistance Program.

University mental health resources can also be found on the Heels Care Network website — including a list of campus crisis and therapy care options, care referrals and peer support. 

Peer supporters from student-run organization Peer2Peer — which offers mental health resources for graduate and undergraduate students — can be reached through their online form. Students can remain anonymous.

For additional information on local and campus mental health resources, see a list compiled by The Daily Tar Heel’s Editorial Board.

@lucymarques_

@DTHCityState | city@dailytarheel.com



Lucy Marques

Lucy Marques is a 2023-24 assistant city & state editor at The Daily Tar Heel. She was previously a city & state senior writer. Lucy is a junior pursuing a double major in political science and Hispanic literatures and cultures.