Tackling Somber Topic of Suicide at USC-VHH

The majority of those in the diverse, 200-member-plus crowd raised a hand when Barbara Lang asked who among them knew someone who’d taken his or her own life.
Medical professionals and student nurses joined teachers, therapists and artists Saturday, filling the conference room at USC Verdugo Hills Hospital with a sense of solidarity. They came together for a free, wide-ranging symposium that was billed as “Having Courageous Conversations About Preventing Suicide.”
Whether their presence at the first-time event was personal, professional or both, audience members heard from Lang, a veteran registered nurse, and several other speakers who used information and personal testimonials to tackle the difficult topic.
Johan Smith, the senior vice president for Health Informatics at Horizon Health, spoke about losing his young nephew to suicide, and about almost losing his college-age son to it, too.
“My nephew, my son and my work have all become intertwined at this point,” Smith said, asking, “so where are we on this thing called suicide? … Let’s just say that the status quo isn’t pretty.”
Smith said suicide in the United States has reached a 30-year high, increasing 24% since 1999 and accounting for 40,000 deaths per year.
He quoted Jeff Borenstein, chief executive of the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation: “If this was any other situation that resulted in death, it would be in the headlines of every paper in the United States and people would be pushing politicians to get something done.”
After acknowledging how productive federal funding has been in helping to fight diseases ranging from HIV to heart disease, and suggesting that it would do the same for suicide, he urged those who’d come to USC-VHH not to wait for an official mandate.
“What we desperately need is practice-based evidence,” he said, adding that he believes data ought to be tracked and shared to help medical practitioners learn more while dispelling myths and stigmas related to suicide and other mental health care issues.
He said those assumptions include the idea that once someone is suicidal, he or she always will be, or that only people with mental disabilities have suicidal ideas.
Smith’s message segued with Lang’s, as she testified that although suicide affects every faction of the population, Americans haven’t gotten better at discussing it in her 46 years working as a psychiatric nurse.
She said that when actor Robin Williams killed himself in 2014, she hoped eople would be willing to face the fact that suicidal thoughts afflict the population at large, including middle-aged white men.
“Usually, unless something happens to someone of importance, if it just happens to regular people, it doesn’t seem to have such a big impact,” she said. “So I thought maybe something would come of this.
“But what happened when the press reported it was: ‘Robin Williams’ battle with demons is finally over.’ We haven’t thought of mental illness as people having demons in their head since the 1700s, but that’s how they talked about it.
“We have to stop that and talk about it the way it is: He had risks and warning signs; he had heart disease; he suffered from depression and was in treatment; he had substance-abuse treatment and had relapses a couple of times; he was recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s and was a middle-aged man — and yet, we said he had ‘demons.’”
The way we talk about suicide is so important, Lang said.
Pasadena City College nursing students Nancy Wong and Jenny Chin heard her: “We have to remember to talk about it,” Wong said. “And we have to get comfortable with talking about it,” Chin added.
Lang said she learned as much as a young nurse, when she was “a little bit nervous about asking a patient if they were suicidal or not.”
She remembers asking a young man if he was having thought of harming himself.
“He stared at me. ‘Harming myself?’ I’m gonna [expletive] kill myself,’” she said he told her. “I get chills when I say that now because I realized you’ve got to say it that way.”
Dr. Timothy Pylko and documentary filmmaker Lisa Klein spoke jointly about learning from suicide survivors whose attempts on their own lives failed, fortunately.
“What are the reasons they get to that state?” Pylko asked. “Who are the ones who get pulled into that state where they want to end their life?”
The reasons range, he said, but often they have to do with intense psychological pain.
“The emotional pain is so acute they just need relief,” Pylko said. “The pain of the psyche is unbearable. Many people say they can handle physical pain much better than that of the psyche.”
So when author and journalist Robert David Jaffee, who has written prolifically about his own psychiatric issues, suggested that his own free will helped aid his recovery, Pylko sought to remind the audience that no suicidal person should be stigmatized for not being strong enough to cope.
“Different people have different capacities to have agency,” Pylko said. “And there are various levels of agency, and some of it erodes over time. My fear is people will say, ‘He chose to kill himself.’”
Jaffee said he hadn’t implied that at all, but sought to stress that “people need to know that they have the biggest role in their own recovery.”
Theresa Murphy, USC-VHH’s chief nursing officer, believed the dialogue was healthy and that it will be repeated at the hospital.
“We’ve touched a really important topic in our community,” she said. “And so we hope to continue this on an annual basis. That’s the vision.”

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