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‘Sharing My Story Is Suicide Prevention': How One Milwaukeean Educates & Supports Others

September is National Suicide Prevention Month. Suicidal thoughts can affect anyone regardless of age, gender or background.
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Adult and child hands holding yellow gold ribbon, Sarcoma Awareness, Bone cancer, childhood cancer awareness, world suicide prevention day.

861 Wisconsinites died by suicide last year according to new data from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, and one in 10 American adults reported seriously considering suicide in June of 2020 according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. One of the best ways to spread awareness about success prevention is to talk about suicide, suicidal ideations and the common misconceptions surrounding it.

Milwaukee native Jeannine Rivers Colburn is a suicide prevention consultant, author, and speaker. Her passion for advocating for mental health stems from her lived experience as a suicide attempt survivor.

Rivers Colburn partners with Prevent Suicide Greater Milwaukee, Mental Health America Wisconsin, and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention to educate others and share the importance of reaching out for help when they are struggling.

"Many people look at suicide prevention as preventing someone from attempting suicide right then and there. Suicide prevention is so much more than that," Rivers Colburn notes.

To her, suicide prevention is teaching people about personalized self-care, how to reframe their way of thinking, and share with others that "there is a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Rivers Colburn admits that suicide can be an uncomfortable topic for people to discuss, even want to address it at all. However, if you notice someone in your life showing signs of suicidal thinking such as leaving goodbye notes and thank you messages, it's time to speak frankly.

"You have to have that real conversation and be willing to ask them [someone suffering from suicidal ideation]. That is so important, not to be afraid to ask. Ask them, are you OK? How can I help?" says Rivers Colburn.

She considers herself a life-experienced expert in part because she's been struggling with depression from a young age and survived a suicide attempt when she was 21. Now, at the age of 56, she notes the work is never over — and needs regarding therapies and medications will fluctuate.

“Don’t be ashamed to go on medication if it’s going to make you feel better — do what’s best for your mental and physical health,” Rivers Colburn says.

From her perspective, suicide is everybody's business, and people can get involved in ways large and small.

“For me, sharing my story is suicide prevention,” says Rivers Colburn.

A Psychologist's Perspective
Lake Effect's Audrey Nowakowski speaks with Dr. David Cipriano, psychologist and the co-chair of the suicide prevention council at the Medical College of Wisconsin about suicide prevention and common misconceptions surrounding suicide.

Dr. David Cipriano is a psychologist and the co-chair of the suicide prevention council at the Medical College of Wisconsin. He says conversations about suicide should start by early adolescence and possibly even younger as sadly, suicides amongst early preteens have occurred.

"I don’t think age is as much of a factor as simply knowing when somebody’s showing us warning signs," says Cipriano. "And then we need to jump in and start asking questions and having those conversations."

However, Cipriano recommends that we should talk to preteens and late preteens about how to look for warning signs amongst their friends, how to ask questions, and how to tell them to seek help.

There are differences between warning signs and risk factors, notes Cipriano. Things such as isolation, substance abuse, and acting out suddenly can be considered risk factors while warning signs can look like people acquiring the means to carry out a suicide plan.

"So we think of risk factors as these — a broader category that people have maybe been in this state or been, you know, dealing with this for a little while," says Cipriano. "But acutely speaking in the moment, we would think of things as warning signs, like people talking about suicide. They do talk about it, and it should be taken seriously."

Suicidal thoughts are common, and Cipriano suggests letting others know that they aren't alone is one important step in making a connection.

"I'm just saying from the individual who may be experiencing it — I think we want them to know, 'Hey, you're not alone lots of people experience this. Tell me about yours. In particular, I'd like to hear about what you've been thinking,'" he says.

It can be common to have misconceptions about suicide. Cipriano addresses some of the most common ones:

  • Suicide only affects people with a mental health condition

    "The great majority of individuals who die by suicide, do have an underlying mental illness. And so that's important to know, right? Because when we're trying to contain contagion, we want to make sure that people know that it is not some romanticized event."

  • Once someone has suicidal ideations, they'll always remain suicidal

    Dr. Cipriano describes, "I would say that people can recover from suicide, thoughts, suicidal behavior. They can absolutely get out of that thinking, and can definitely move beyond and have a life that does not involve constant thoughts about suicide."

  • Most suicides happen without warning

    "That's definitely a myth. Because we do find, as we trace back that there were warning signs."

  • People who struggle with suicide are selfish or taking the easy way out

    "They feel badly that they have burdened others around them with their presence with their problems, and so forth. So they're, they're feeling the exact opposite of that. Absolutely. That's the perspective that sometimes comes from survivors, loved ones, who do often go through a period of feeling angry, you know, and resentful that they were left behind."

  • Suicide will lead to and encourage suicide

    "Absolutely not. That's one of the biggest myths we work hard to dispel. You will not plant the seed of the thought by talking about it or by asking a pointed question for somebody that you're worried about."

The main message Cipriano shares is that it does get better — there is hope, and there is help.
"No depression ever lasted forever, no suicidal thought pattern ever lasted forever. People get better and recover," he says. "They discover resources out there to help them on that path. And it's absolutely the key message we have to get across to people."

Resources To Get Help

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
800-273-TALK (8255)

Crisis Text Line
Text HOPELINE to 741741

Veterans Crisis Line
800-273-8255 (press 1)

Farmers Wellness Helpline

TrevorLifeline (LGBTQ)

County Crisis LinesDirectory

Life-Threatening Emergency

Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Kobe Brown was WUWM's fifth Eric Von fellow.
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