Through the process of grappling with the grief and trying to understand the loss of her teenage daughter, Cheryl Duncan said she started the Ashley Jadine Foundation to spread awareness about mental health in youth and to tell those struggling with depression that it is OK to talk about what they are feeling.
“It was hard for a lot of people. We thought, ‘How could this happen?’” Duncan said. “If you start a conversation, people will continue to talk, and you’ll find out that you’re not alone.”
Duncan’s foundation is one of many efforts to educate Harris County residents about mental health amid rising suicide rates. To address the growing issue, local organizations are working to confront the factors that lead to suicide while creating a dialogue about mental health and connecting those who struggle with appropriate resources.
Confronting the causes
Laurie Silver, the director of mental health programs at the Jewish Family Service in Meyerland, said suicide rates are rising at both the local and national levels, with the highest rates of suicide occurring in younger and elderly age groups.
“What happens in our community is actually replicated in the city of Houston, Harris County, the state of Texas and in the country,” Silver said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported suicide as the second-leading cause of death for ages 10-34 and the 11th-leading cause of death in the state of Texas in 2017.
At the county level, the number of suicides has increased by 18.1% from 2010-18 while the population has increased by 14.8% in the same time period.
Silver attributes the rising rates to a variety of intersecting factors, with mental health conditions, poverty and substance misuse often being related and influenced by events such as relationship breakups, financial stress and health conditions.
“Those factors have always existed, but when you look at the rates of mental health conditions that are on the increase, part of it is that this is finally being spoken of,” Silver said. “There’s this increasing ability to commit self-harm that we haven’t seen in the culture before.”
According to Silver, one of the greatest obstacles to preventing suicide and connecting people with the resources they need is the stigma surrounding mental health, which can be prevalent at a community level and up to the broader societal level.
“There’s this sort of stoic, historical context in this country that you should just buck up and pull yourself up by the bootstraps,” Silver said. “There hasn’t been a true understanding or acceptance that brain diseases are no different than other diseases of the body.”
Creating a dialogue
Confronting the stigma surrounding mental illness and suicide by opening up conversations about often difficult topics is something Duncan said she has striven to do for years through the Ashley Jadine Foundation.
“Sometimes you just need to talk about things that have occurred in your life and how you can continue to live. ... It’ll get better when we as a society don’t look down on it,” Duncan said. “You still want to celebrate life even though there’s hurt and pain.”
For those at the Jewish Family Service, Silver said creating awareness about mental health is the first step to addressing and preventing suicide.
“What we’re working on clinically and in terms of programming is starting a conversation, and I think that’s what you’re seeing across the country,” Silver said. “Years ago, there just wasn’t a dialogue, and there was so much family shame and so much guilt for family members that there just wasn’t any place to any seek help or support.
After suicide can be spoken about more openly, communities and individuals can begin being better educated about the factors and warning signs of those who struggle with suicidal thoughts, according to Silver.
“I don’t think there are very many families that haven’t been touched by mental health conditions,” Silver said. “By shining a light on mental health conditions as opposed to keeping it as this dark, shameful thing, we’re seeing more and more people reach out for support and help.”
Ada Cheung, the managing director of the JFS Family and Children Counseling Department, said education could allow people suffering from mental health issues to recognize their symptoms and create better communication between patients and mental health care providers.
“We see some clients who cannot admit that they have mental health issues, and they’ll shift it and say they just have a headache or a stomach ache,” Cheung said. “They minimize their mental health symptoms, and that’s a major problem. We have to create awareness through education not just for the community but also for upcoming therapists.”
Connecting with resources
Finding and connecting with the right form of treatment is not always an easy process, as Meyerland resident Ryan Schwartz said he discovered after his mother died.
“I was trying to figure out how to grieve in a healthy way while also supporting my family and my mom’s friends, and I really had a hard time finding the right therapist,” Schwartz said. “What makes finding a therapist different than anything else is a need for a personality fit ... it’s that you feel safe with them and comfortable with them and that you feel like you’re in good hands.”
From his search for mental health treatment, Schwartz said he was inspired to create Mental Health Match, a site that can connect those seeking professional treatment with the right therapist in order to get the help they need.
“Therapy is about taking some dedicated time to figure out how to feel better and be your best self,” Schwartz said. “Whatever folks are experiencing, there is somebody who has made a career out of helping people like you. ... No matter what’s going on with you, you aren’t alone.”
Cheung said treatment for mental health can begin in a variety of different formats, with the JFS providing many different support groups, options for individual therapy and other resources available through the organization.
“Our programs are designed in a way that all of the support groups are free,” Cheung said. “We want to push them out to the community and say, ‘Just come and learn.’”