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Sharing mental health experiences even more important during pandemic
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Sharing mental health experiences even more important during pandemic

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Though today marks the last day of Suicide Prevention Month, local prevention and awareness efforts are ongoing, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to pose additional mental health challenges.

The Coconino County Board of Supervisors proclaimed September 2020 as National Suicide Prevention Month in order to “prevent further loss from death by suicide, acknowledge the lived experience of attempt survivors and recognize and honor loss survivors’ experiences.”

The proclamation cited the county’s high rate of death by suicide: in 2019 the national rate was 14.21 per 100,000 people, in Arizona it was 19.21 and in Coconino County the rate was 29.27.

The Stronger as One Coalition, in particular, has worked throughout the month and since its creation in 2018 to improve mental health and wellbeing in northern Arizona to prevent suicides. The multi-organizational group has more than 250 participating organizations and community members. Its primary efforts include expanding Mental Health First Aid training, promoting knowledge of mental health resources and supporting those in crisis. The coalition focuses on the mental health of Coconino County’s teens and young adults, in particular.

Erica Shaw, Coconino County’s Stronger as One program manager, said an important part of suicide prevention is validation of experiences, including the new ones brought on by COVID-19.

“Especially now during the pandemic, it can become very easy for people to try to diminish or devalue the experience that they’re having compared to someone else’s. You may not have COVID but you’re still living in the reality of that fear and all of these different disruptions in our life,” Shaw said. “So it’s really, really important to validate that what you’re experiencing — no matter what other people are experiencing — is real and the first step to addressing those and healing from them is naming them and owning them.”

The coalition’s goal during the pandemic has been to show that, though community members may be apart, they are not alone.

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“Validating one another’s experience can be a really powerful, positive force in helping people to find the supports they need so that we can all heal through this together and move forward and take care of ourselves,” Shaw said.

She explained that anxiety and depressive disorders have more than tripled nationally since the beginning of the pandemic as a result of new challenges like increased isolation, disruption of routines, loss and grief — not only for those who have died, but also for a past way of life — and fear for safety and security.

According to a Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in late June, 40% of U.S. adults reported struggling with mental health or substance abuse. Of those, nearly 11% reported having seriously considered suicide in the prior month, more than twice the number of such reports from all of 2018. These reports were higher among those aged 18-24 years, minority racial and ethnic groups, unpaid caregivers and essential workers.

To support community members this month, Stronger as One has been offering its Mental Health First Aid trainings and teen club virtually.

Since the coalition’s formation, more than 1,500 community members have been trained in Mental Health First Aid, a free program that trains participants how to respond to mental health emergencies. The coalition now has 63 individuals who are trained to teach the course, including 16 who were certified in Youth Mental Health First Aid in July.

The teen club has been meeting weekly during the pandemic to give young participants a space to share the challenges they are facing in order to develop other projects like a peer education program to teach younger students about mental health as well as a community mural to artistically represent concepts like loss and hope.

Last week, the coalition also hosted a “Wandering for Wellness” scavenger hunt leading community members to hidden caches throughout Flagstaff, which they were encouraged to share on social media when found. The caches included prizes donated by local businesses as well as information on mental health skills like coping mechanisms. Shaw said the goal of the event was to get people outside and connected while still staying socially distanced.

The group has numerous upcoming initiatives, including a shoe painting series with Native American artist Duane Koyawena, to continue to connect community members so they can share their recent experiences.

“We want to normalize talking about mental health and wellbeing because without doing that, things are going to have difficulty improving,” Shaw said. “People need to have knowledge and compassion and action because one without the other two, we’re not going to see the change. We need people to be motivated to act.”

Kaitlin Olson can be reached at the office at kolson@azdailysun.com or by phone at (928) 556-2253.

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