EDITOR'S NOTE: Knox Pages sent reporter Grant Pepper to Austin, Texas for the 2019 South by Southwest convention. From March 8 to 12, he’ll attend conferences where industry leaders will discuss the future of healthcare, technology, downtown development and more. Each day, he’ll report back on his findings. The goal? To spark conversation about what's next, and how this region can be a part of it.
AUSTIN, TEXAS – Dr. Patrice Harris, president-elect of the American Medical Association, began the mental health conversation at South by Southwest on Monday morning by announcing a jarring statistic.
“This is the first generation whose life expectancy is going to be shorter than the previous generation,” said Harris, who paused to let the words sink in.
The reason for that fact is why Harris sat at the panel on Monday, alongside some of the nation’s leading mental health experts.
U.S. life expectancy has declined two years in a row, in part due to the increasing suicide rate (the opioid epidemic has contributed to the drop as well). Harris and the panel identified some solutions to America’s growing mental health problem, and also laid out the challenges ahead.
In Ohio, the suicide rate rose 36 percent from 1999 to 2016, according to a CDC report. This figure is slightly higher than the 25 percent increase that occurred nationally. Officials like Harris are calling for more serious treatment of the issue, especially when it comes to the nation’s youth.
Dr. Christine Moutier, chief medical officer for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, preached an aggressive approach when it comes to identifying warning signs. When someone is exhibiting behavior patterns that are “slightly different than normal,” Moutier said it is important to ask timely, direct questions.
“It’s going to be you and your gut instinct to notice that their behavior patterns are different,” Moutier said. “It becomes as simple as inviting a caring conversation about any potentially private and concerning issue with that person.”
Moutier believes that, often times, friends or family will wait too long to ask what’s wrong. And when they do, they don’t ask the important questions.
“You have to extend a sense of safety and support in that conversation,” Moutier said. “‘I’ve noticed that you haven’t been yourself. I’m not here to judge you, just here to understand what’s going on.’”
The goal is to “allow the person to let down their guard so they can share internal experiences,” Moutier said. Often times, someone who might be considering suicide feels as if they are trapped. They feel like they are a burden to others.
Moutier said friends and family should go as deep into the problem as possible during conversation. The only reason 911 should be called is if someone is physically in the act of attempting suicide.
To push this concept, Moutier’s foundation recently partnered with the Ad Council to produce a PSA campaign called “Seize the Awkward,” which promotes the uncomfortable conversations that often lead to solutions in at-risk situations.
“These are conversations we should be having more and more,” Moutier said. “It goes to this idea of identifying people not being themselves, even when it’s against normal culture.”
Still, the challenge of curbing this trend is immense. Suicidal ideations are particularly prevalent among the nation’s youth. According to Moutier, one-in-five high school students are having “serious thoughts of suicide.”
“So if you’re a teacher, in your classroom, this is happening,” she said.
Kim McPherson, senior program officer for the St. David’s Foundation, one of the nation’s largest healthcare foundations, believes teenagers now are experiencing a lack of social connection – despite the technology that may seem to fill that void – and a lack of purpose.
“We have something really disturbing going on right now,” McPherson said.
Moutier said that across all age groups, those experiencing suicidal ideations tend to withdraw. Self-stigma piles onto social stigma, which can be too overwhelming to handle.
In addition, Harris believes it takes too long for many patients to receive psychiatrist care. It can take up to six weeks for some patients to get an appointment, Harris said, which is “too long” for someone in that situation.
“There is a shortage of psychiatrists in this country,” Harris said.
The panel agreed that encouraging young people to pursue careers as psychologists, psychiatrists and clinicians is necessary, although a workforce surge realistically won’t happen without a reduction in school debt.
“We have to address this challenge on so many levels,” Harris said.
Harris is one of many who believe technology could aid in the treatment of mental illnesses.
There are currently apps in development, Harris said, that will make physicians available 24/7. This will allow for more immediate care, which could prevent long wait times and begin the solution process sooner.
McPherson believes telemedicine will play a bigger role in the mental health crisis as time goes on, and Moutier added that 24/7 texting services are available for those in need.
Technology will also allow researchers to examine larger data sets – tens of thousands of people – to find potential causes of suicide. Considering a larger sample size will allow experts to pinpoint specific, predictable signs of suicidal ideations.
The key, Moutier said, will be to act quickly on those signs once they are identified.
“Once we see a tech-proven indicator, act on it,” she said. “Don’t wait for patients to come in and confess their feelings themselves.”
According to Moutier, a “tremendous amount of research” is currently going into the link between social media and teen suicide. Having seen the research, she called the trend “extremely concerning.” However, she believes this research will help address the issue.
Another trend is the use of firearms as suicidal weapons. A CDC study shows that over half of U.S. suicides occur via firearm, which McPherson believes warrants a call to action.
“With the access to lethal means, whether it be access to pills in a parents’ cabinet or a gun, we need to make it harder to kill people,” McPherson said.
The next step, Harris said, is continuing to use science to push for tighter gun safety standards. She implied it would require apolitical, solutions-oriented thinking to get this done, although that’s easier said than done.
“So often in this country, we tend to have either/or discussions,” Harris said, “rather than having discussions about solutions we can get to.”
Moutier believes the federal government – when it comes to funding or lawmaking to support mental health initiatives – is “playing catch-up” to the science.
Going along with her message of transparency, Moutier encouraged people to be open to the idea of talking about mental illnesses. She believes this is the only way to cut down on the stigma associated with mental illnesses and develop a more proactive culture.
“Every group of people can struggle and suffer,” Moutier said. “And when there are perceived barriers in the way of being real and authentic with our struggles, we can invariably put ourselves at higher risk.”