May is Mental Health Month and, recently, Minnesota Gov. Walz declared that our state was committed to “providing health resources to every Minnesotan.”
In a series of ongoing meetings in and around the State Capitol, a Minnesota based Mental Health Legislative Network (MHLN) has organized a bipartisan group of lawmakers to address some of the most important issues—building the mental health workforce, funding local community mental health services, developing a crises response system and addressing how to best serve people with mental illness in our criminal justice system.
Said Senator Julie Rosen (R-Fairmont) “more than ever before, we have heard about the needs of mental health…in every sector, profession and population around the state.”
I offer my own personal story. It was the day before my 50th birthday — Feb. 1997 — that I discovered my 20-year-old-son Judson’s lifeless body as a result of a self-inflicted gunshot blast.
I later wrote about his young life, including as a 4-year-old rescuing a flight-incapacitated duck we found in our backyard. After some days for recovery, the two of us carefully transported the duck to Como Lake, allowing the young quacker to paddle out and join a raft of others preparing to fly southward.
Judson grew into a sensitive, polite person; his friends appreciated his quiet charm that so often inspired, encouraged and humored them.
By junior high, we began to see in him what we now know as clinical depression, though it was not formally diagnosed. Judd did have a counseling psychologist, but he rejected deep therapy. The teen continued to struggle to meet deadlines and suffered from sleep irregularities. Nearly everything became difficult for him.
But Judd eventually rebounded and, after losing a year, he graduated from Hopkins High School in the top 10% of his class. He was accepted at Purdue University.
Abruptly, however, after six months he dropped out of college in Indiana to return to Minnesota, where he was admitted to the U of M.
On the weekend where his world ended, Judd attended a Spike Lee lecture, a dance and had planned to attend the play “Great Expectations” and join our family for an annual dinner at Murray’s.
Sadly, I found my son in the early evening some hours after his death, slumped in a chair.
More than 700 family and friends attended his funeral at the local Presbyterian Church. The high school choir, of which he had been a member, sang a Mozart number. Three of his best friends provided powerful, reflective comments.
It was at that time that I joined the nearly 300,000 suicide “survivors” in America who must carry on each year without their loved ones.
The Center for Disease Control tracks the realities of suicide — the 10th leading cause of death for all ages. The highest suicide rates are among whites, American Indians and Alaska Natives. Globally, about one in four suicide attempts results in death; that rate is far lower in the U.S., at about one in 25 attempts.
Depression, a brain disease, is most often a part of the human condition by those who take their own lives. One in four Americans ages 18 and above experience depression every year; about half get treatment. Up to 90% of those Americans who get treatment are successful with a combination of drugs and therapy.
Of concern are active and retired veterans. The VA’s Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention tracks suicides of our men and women in the armed services. Though preventative measures have been undertaken, there is an average of 20 suicides a day in one recent VA analysis.
Nearly 800 Minnesotans die by suicide annually, averaging 14 people per 100,000 residents, on a par with the national numbers.
Minnesota’s suicide rate since the death of my son has been on a slow, steady rise for over two decades.
Suicide rates for men have increased in the metro area; overall, suicides are significantly higher outside the Twin Cities, where it’s often more difficult for people to access mental health services.
Suicide is one of those issues that most people do not think about until they are tragically thrust into doing so, as I was. After a suicide, most of us begin a search for some kind of understanding of the death of our loved one, even though we know these issues may be impossible to determine.
According to the executive director of the Minnesota-based Suicide Awareness/Voices of Education (SAVE), Dan Reisenberg, “Suicide is preventable in the vast majority of cases. It is a treatable brain disease, and newly developed treatments work.”
Each of us must thoughtfully consider what we can do to help those who most need it to climb from the valley of despair into the sunshine of healthy lives lived purposefully.
Chuck Slocum is president of The Williston Group, a Minnetonka-based management consulting firm.