Let’s Talk About “It”

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Pictured Above: Barb Smith


Vantage Plastics and its subsidiary companies continually provide training and resources to its employees, customers, and broader community. As such, Barb Smith founder and Executive Director of the Barb Smith Suicide Resource and Response Network was brought in to give interactive presentations to our entire team.  Barb has dedicated her life to advocating for suicide prevention and aftercare both throughout Michigan and nationally and is a certified trainer for LivingWorks ASIST, safeTALK, and Suicide Awareness programs. She was appointed to the Governor’s Suicide Prevention Plan and most recently honored with the Saving A Life Award from Kevin’s Song and presented with the award from NAMI Michigan Special Honoree. The following provides a brief synopsis of Barb’s presentation.

During 2021 there were 48,183 known suicides in the United States and 1,485 in the State of Michigan. These are significant and regrettable numbers. Put in perspective the national numbers would fill Comerica Park to capacity with 8,000 people waiting in line. Yet we generally don’t speak about suicide and treat it as a taboo subject even though most of us have encountered it in one way or another. Barb herself became dedicated to prevention after losing her brother John to suicide 33 years ago. She states that suicide “changes you but it doesn’t have to destroy you.” While there are some groups more likely to commit suicide than others, suicide occurs regardless of age, gender, socioeconomic status, profession, cultural background, or other distinctions.

Barb indicated that we will speak of people dying from cancer, auto crashes, and other causes but generally avoid speaking of suicide. Life can present us with many challenges and lots of people may contemplate suicide but most don’t act on it. Individuals can experience trauma, bullying, financial issues, gambling, drug addictions, alcohol, chronic pain, loss, and many other things. A combination of these things can contribute to suicide but they don’t cause it. Suicide is a response, not a choice. It’s about ending pain. People can develop a sense of hopelessness and fall into the perspective that the only way to stop the pain is to end their life. Depression is an illness that affects every organ of the body and the brain.

It is important for us to recognize symptoms and have conversations with people when we do. We can recognize these symptoms in others and in ourselves. Symptoms can include losing enjoyment in things once enjoyed, feelings of sadness, retracting from engaging with others or a sense of not fitting in, angriness, hurting all over, anxiousness, thoughts of death, crying a lot, giving up activities, not engaging with friends, saying unusual things, giving things away, or other noticeable changes. Barb shares that people have described it to her as feeling like they are in a “hollow tunnel.”

Barb states that mental illness is an illness and it is treatable. If the brain is not balanced there is nothing wrong with getting treatment just like we correct our vision by getting glasses or contact lenses. Barb points out that farmers who have a suicide rate twice as high as other professions maintain their tractors and other equipment but often don’t maintain themselves.  

Stress can throw our brain chemistry off. Many of the recent cultural changes involving gaming and social media have had significant impacts on how we interact with others. The COVID pandemic has also contributed to change. Many face-to-face interactions have now become web-based and can lead to a sense of isolation. The 24/7 nature of the web also doesn’t allow many people a chance to disconnect and focus on themselves and life. Many on social media platforms often don’t use “filters of politeness” in these interactions and can be extremely hurtful as a result. Barb points out that we might also notice people saying things on social media that are essentially cries for help or display thoughts of suicide. There are 3 dots on social media platforms if clicked on can let us report people that may be having issues. Making a notification will trigger someone reaching out to see if the person needs help. About 80% of suicidal individuals will reveal it in one way or another and often on social media. We need to be aware of these signals.

Even though we are ten times more likely to encounter someone thinking of suicide versus someone having a heart attack we are much less prepared to intervene to prevent a suicide than we are to use CPR. Therefore, we need to learn more about how to address it with others. Barb suggests three essential steps. 1) Listen, observe, and notice to understand and see signs. Notice things like weight loss, no eye contact, self-harm, disengagement, big changes in behavior, things being said such as “I don’t care anymore.”  2) Ask directly because you noticed. You might say; “I care about you and I don’t want to lose you.” “Is everything okay?”   “Hey, I noticed something and I’m wondering if you’re having any thoughts of suicide?” Don’t say; “You’re not thinking about killing yourself, are you?” or “You’re not thinking about doing something stupid are you?” 3) Connect by listening to understand not to respond. Being physically present is better than just having a virtual conversation. Utilize transition statements such as; “Thanks for talking with me.” “Thanks for trusting me.” “It took courage for you to tell me.” Consider dispensing their potentially harmful medications rather than leaving it to them. Remove guns, and don’t leave people alone that are actively contemplating suicide. In panic situations people will turn to the fastest method available so remove the method. Keep them safe now and connect them with resources.

Finally, there are numerous resources available for help. Dialing 988 connects you with a suicide crisis hotline that can provide help if you or someone you know might be contemplating suicide. You can also text “Talk to 741741” to be connected. There are community health workers that can be contacted. You can ask SIRI; “Hey I’m thinking about suicide” and Siri will ask if you’d like to have her place a call for help. Employee Assistance Programs (EAP’s) offered by employer health plans provide an option for calling a hotline that can provide resources. Many areas have family grief groups, counseling, or day treatment centers. Many churches and faith groups can also offer help. We encourage you to reach out to the Barb Smith Suicide Resource and Response Network at www.srrn.net or call 989-781-5260 for numerous other resources, training opportunities, or to arrange to have Barb give a presentation. We thank Barb Smith for helping fulfill the Vantage Plastics’ Mission of Forming Better Lives, Forming Solutions, and Forming Sustainable Futures. 

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