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Please Reach Out – You Are Not Alone!

Almost 20 years ago, I started a job as a medical social worker at an academic medical center. “Connor” began around the same time on the same medical service and we quickly bonded. A few years younger than me, Connor was handsome and charming and popular with our patients. Over time, we grew in our clinical development together as colleagues and as adults. I remember his joy when he got married, and even though he was nervous about becoming a father a few years later, Connor sent me a video he produced of his brand new baby daughter, set to music he composed. Such a proud papa! After several years, our lives went in different directions, but I was able to casually keep up with him through mutual colleagues. He and his wife added a son to their family, and he began working in a very innovative area of health care, garnering much professional success and recognition. Recently, I learned that Connor died by suicide at the age of 48.

I ask myself, “how can this happen?” How can a person who, by all appearances, has a loving family and works for an institution that devotes substantial resources to mental health and well-being (including suicide prevention) become so overwhelmed by his anguish that he chose to end his life?

These mysteries are not mine to know. But I am reminded again that suicide is a growing public health concern, part of a national trend of “deaths of despair.” According to a recent report, Utah had the fifth-highest suicide rate in the nation in 2016, and it’s been on the rise for the last decade. And it’s not just a Utah phenomenon. In 2015, five of our HealthInsight and Qualis Health states (Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah) ranked in the bottom quartile for suicide rates nationally. It’s even worse when you look at the suicide rates among the senior population, and it’s not as if these folks are disengaged from the health care system. A study published in 2011 found that 45 percent of people who died by suicide had contact with primary care providers in the month before their death. Among older adults, it’s 78 percent. As the study concluded, “In total, primary care clinicians write more prescriptions for antidepressants than mental health clinicians and see patients more often in the month before their death by suicide.”

How can we act to alleviate this suffering? There are a variety of resources for providers. More importantly, there are resources for those of us who are hurting and discouraged. Please reach out, please do not suffer in silence. If you do not have a trusted individual you can talk with, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. And like HealthInsight and Qualis Health, your organization may also offer support through an Employee Assistance Program.

My heart aches for Connor, his family and his colleagues. An individual suicide impacts so many, the ripples expand outward exponentially and remind us to treat one another with compassion and kindness—you never know what unseen burdens another might be carrying.

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