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Effort underway to remove stigma from mental illness

Editor’s Note — The first Connecting Community Symposium organized through a variety of nonprofits was held on Nov. 29. Some 250 civic leaders and officials attended the event aimed at coming up with collaborative solutions to key social justice issues in the region. This is the third in a series of the panel discussions.

When it comes to combating mental illness, one of the first things to conquer is stigma.

“Stigma is huge, and it weighs heavy” on those who struggle with depression, anxiety and addiction, according to mental health professionals who were part of a panel talk at the recent Connecting Communities Symposium in November.

The first-of-its-kind symposium was organized by a group of multi-agency groups working to address social justice issues in Yavapai County. The event included five separate panels tackling five topics: substance abuse, mental health, family and sexual violence, homelessness and community collaboration.

One of the county’s most unfortunate distinctions is that it has the highest suicide rate in the state, a fatal symptom of a mental health illness or crisis.

Between Jan. 1, 2017 and May 1, 2018, the state Medical Examiner’s Office confirmed 99 suicide deaths in Yavapai County, the largest numbers occurring between those between 50 and 59.

The 2017 Yavapai County Community Health Services annual report showed that the county’s suicide rate is 32.8 per 100,000 population. Statewide, that rate is 17.8 and nationally it is 10.2, according to 2016 statistics.

These figures are more than statistics to John Schuderer, the founder and head of the Yavapai County Suicide Prevention Coalition started in 2012.

Schuderer’s passion around the issue is personal. His adult son, Noel, committed suicide in 2001.

Combating suicide takes a commitment to reaching out to people in pain, to be compassionate and assertive about helping them navigate their emotions so they don’t feel alone or hopeless.

Empathy is key, said Schuderer, a licensed therapist.

Just the way someone asks a question to someone in crisis can make all the difference, he said.

Don’t ask what’s wrong with you? Do ask what’s happening to you right now? Schuderer suggested.

Reframing that one question can open the door to a conversation that can save a life, he said.

If someone is suicidal, they should not be left alone, Schuderer said. They need to be taken to crisis intervention officials, be it at an emergency room or mental health facility, for both immediate and long-term care, he noted.

In Prescott Valley, the West Yavapai Guidance Clinic operates a 24/7 crisis intervention facility that can provide emergency assistance for up to 24 hours, and even short-term hospitalization.

More understanding about mental health has prompted Yavapai County law enforcement to be pro-active about ascertaining if those who have committed, non-violent crimes have done so because of some type of mental health crisis or addiction.

The Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office a year ago launched what they refer to as the “Reach Out Initiative” as a means to identify those struggling with such issues. They then work to coordinate aftercare for those individuals upon release.

Panelist YCSO Capt. Jeff Newnum concurs that the stigma of mental illness often means people in need of behavioral health or medical intervention end up on the wrong side of the law. This initiative is seen as a more humane approach to treating individuals with mental health and addiction issues while protecting the community and its citizens from repeat criminal offenses, he said.

Yavapai County is fortunate it has access to resources that can benefit those who suffer from mental health or addiction issues, officials said.

Still, no one is going to reach out if they suspect they will be treated with disdain or be judged because of their condition or choices rooted in their illness, said panelist Shawn Hatch, Western Yavapai Guidance Clinic’s chief clinical officer and hospital administrator.

“Stigma is our biggest obstacle,” said Nancy DeVine, a panelist who has spent more than 30 years in the behavioral health industry and now works at the local VA as a clinical social worker.

One in four people will have a mental health incident sometime in their life, DeVine said.

If someone appears to be distraught, DeVine advises the first response should not be to walk away.

Often a comforting word or gesture can be all it takes for someone — be it family, a friend or a stranger — to realize they need not bear all the weight of their burden, DeVine said. What most are seeking in a moment of crisis is a light to be shined into their dark tunnel, she and other suggested.

“We have to encourage people to reach out,” she concluded.

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