Developing a support system key to suicide prevention, panelists agree

Justine McClure speaks during the virtual panel.

In conjunction with Suicide Prevention Month, the City of Edmonds in late September hosted a panel discussion featuring a range of experts, including Justine McClure, who heads the Washington and Idaho chapters of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSC).

McClure provided statistics about some of the recent deaths involving people who died by suicide, noting that suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. “On an average, 25 people attempt suicide for every person who has died by suicide,” she said, meaning that 1.2 million individuals nationwide “are attempting to die by suicide.”

She also explained that people often negatively stereotype those suffering with mental illness and there needs to be a change in how we address those individuals.

“We know it’s preventable. Our hiccup and where we’re at is stigma,” McClure said.“We need to normalize, and we need to reach out to individuals that we know are struggling or ourselves having the confidence and knowing where to go,” she said,knowing that other people are there for you and being OK with sharing your story.”

Part of the solution, she said, is finding the right tools and resources for those struggling with mental illness and having a support system of friends, family members, strangers and others in the community.

Fortunately, she said, the AFSC has made progress in this area by focusing on several educational methods and best practices. These include “safe storing” of  medicine and “other lethal means,” mental health education, and providing services for individuals who need it.

Experts are anticipating that statistics will show an almost 5% drop in deaths by suicide in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, “and that’s because people are seeking care, it’s because we were talking about our mental health,” McClure said. “Everybody showed when they were struggling and how they were struggling because isolation, feeling lonely, feeling scared, those are all things that we can connect with and we were all experiencing.”

That experience “normalized mental health and seeking care,” she added.

School districts are also working to prioritize mental health and the well-being of their students.

Joanna Rockwood

Joanna Rockwood, the Edmonds School District’s suicide prevention coordinator, said the district is focused early intervention involving students with different behavioral needs, as well as suicide prevention.

While national statistics indicate that suicide rates did drop during the pandemic when schools were closed, Rockwood noted that when schools opened again, “they saw an exponential rise. And so it is so important, more than ever before, to be addressing this.”

The Edmonds School District prioritizes the social and emotional  health of their students, Rockwood said, noting that mental health is not a single issue, but rather it is a subset of issues.

“We have school psychologists, school counselors,” she said. “We now have newly hired school social workers and we have family resource advocates in all of our schools who champion the mental health practices and social and emotional learning.”

The school district also went a little deeper and worked on several projects that would bring the issue of mental health and suicide to community members.

The district has a Signs of Suicide program in all its secondary schools and introduced its first suicide prevention committee in the district last year, “and we did do our very first mental health community forum,” Rockwood said. “So, we just continued to grow and just normalize these conversations as much as possible.” 

 It’s important to raise awareness about mental health and suicide and allow people to look into some resources that might be useful for those who are struggling socially and emotionally, Rockwood said. This involves finding the right tools and strategies to help students thrive in the classroom.

“I believe that the continued social-emotional learning and focusing on that and practices to give students the problem-solving skills to be able to address their issues before suicide is ever an option for them — that is true suicide prevention,” Rockwood said.

Speaker Tim Krivanek of Mukilteo, who lost his 15-year-old daughter to suicide five years ago, told the panel it’s important to “break the stigma” around mental illness and be aware of  people struggling with their mental health. He said he has been working with the Mukilteo School District to help shape the district’s suicide prevention curriculum.

The LGBTQ community has also been impacted by higher rates of suicide among individuals. This is primarily because those communities aren’t treated equally compared to other groups.

Sarah Mixson

Sarah Mixson is an Edmonds Diversity Commission member and is part of Edmonds’ LGBTQ community. She talked about some of the experiences that LGBTQ individuals face in a variety of settings that could lead to suicide.

“A lot of it is the stigma of being LGBTQ in some communities, especially some youth who are actually disowned by their families and kicked out and become homeless or are couch surfing on friends’ couches,” Mixson said.

Those youth are also often negatively targeted by other groups, she added.. “There’s discrimination in school and in the community as well they see negative stereotypes around them,” she said. “Some of them experience violence — they’re beat up or spit on or whatever. Some students have also had to deal with conversion therapy with family members or whoever trying to change them to be straight.”

The fact of the matter is that “there’s an internalized stigma of being different,”Mixson said. She noted that Edmonds has become more inclusive and accepting of LGBTQ people. During Pride month, a Pride flag was flown at City Hall, which was “a huge deal,” Mixson said. “Saying, ‘we stand with you. You are part of our community’ is huge.”

There’s also a  Pride of Edmonds Facebook group that sponsors activities. 

The bottom line, the panelists agreed, is that suicide is more than just an issue. It’s an epidemic that affects people’s mental health and well-being. The panelists said they hope that their discussion can get people to understand some of the long-term effects of suicide on individuals and that the community can come together to support those who are struggling.You can watch the entire presentation at this link.

— By Laszlo Jajczay



  1. Connecting a “stigma: to suicide begs the question, “To whom are we speaking?”

    We cannot reach the person who has died, so it is not to that person.
    We can reach those who have lost a loved one, but ought we not instead respect their mourning?
    We can reach those considering suicide, but our accusations may push them further away from seeking help.

    I believe we can reach out without employng that term.

    Harold A Maio

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