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“We’re at a crossroads”: Local and state leaders discuss suicide prevention, mental health awareness
Suicide Prevention Talk
Chief of Communications and Policy for the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse Jeff Breedlove talks about suicide prevention and mental health during a press conference on Thursday, Sept. 9. - photo by Erica Jones

On Thursday, Sept. 9, local and state leaders held a press conference in Dawsonville on suicide prevention in local communities, encouraging attendees to do all they can to help raise awareness for suicide prevention and promote mental health and wellness. 

Abdul Henderson, executive director for Mental Health America of Georgia, said during the presentation that Dawson County has been the top county in the state for death by suicide for the past 10 years. Moreover, he said that Dawson County ranks 16th in the nation for severe depression. 

“We are at a crossroads right now when it comes to mental health, suicide and substance abuse,” Henderson said. “Our rural counties are suffering, there is a lack of access, and there are too many young people and adults suffering from mental health issues.” 

Henderson said that one thing he and other leaders in the field of mental health and suicide prevention would like to see is for children with mental health issues to be diagnosed early, as opposed to letting it get worse as they grow up. 

“One of the things [we] would like to see priority is children,” Henderson said. “Children are our future, and we must give them all the resources and tools to ensure that they have a viable future, so what we would like to see is that initial diagnoses happen in a healthcare setting, rather than the justice system or a welfare system… we also must ensure that families and adults receive education on how to develop, promote and maintain mental wellness and resilience.” 

Jeff Breedlove, chief of communications and policy for the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse, said that a key to helping lower the sobering statistics when it comes to suicide rates is to suggest a change in the way the general public addresses and thinks about suicide prevention. 

“We want to start talking about suicide long before it’s a crisis — when suicide becomes a crisis it takes all the air out of a room and it shifts the focus from cause to effect which allows these broader issues to not be addressed,” Breedlove said. “So we want to address things like the lack of access to behavioral healthcare in rural areas, housing insecurity, employment challenges and the rising number of children in foster care; if we can address things on the front end then it’ll change things on the back end.” 

Breedlove said that one of the biggest risk factors when it comes to suicide prevention is the stigma that is often associated with asking for help. 

“Stigma impacts the suicide and mental health community; people are afraid of being labeled and these issues stem from childhood in many cases,” Breedlove said. “It delays people who want to seek help and who are suicidal, and it impairs their willingness to engage with other people to get help.” 

According to Breedlove, the general public can help the problem by being willing to talk about suicide and mental health problems in an open and non-judgmental way. 

“The real shame is the silence — more than 48,000 Americans die each year by suicide, more than 1.3 million Americans have attempted suicide each year on average, and approximately 15 billion people have told their healthcare providers that they have serious thoughts of suicide,” Breedlove said. “Silence and stigma kill; our job is to show compassion and create connected communities… to save lives.” 

Rebecca Bliss, coordinator for Dawson County Family Connection, also spoke during the press conference, stating that her organization has recently made suicide prevention awareness one of its big goals because of how much it affects Dawson County. 

“The people outside of our county are looking and they say ‘Dawson County is in the top three for suicides’ or ‘they’re in the top ten for the state of Georgia for children who are extremely depressed’,” Bliss said. “Other people look at it as a statistic; to me and my board there was a child, there was a person, there was a family that you went to church with, so that’s one of the reasons why we took on suicide prevention as a strategy in Dawson County.” 

Bliss said that for someone who is struggling with suicidal thoughts, often the most brave thing to do is to ask for help. 

“Mental health resources are here in Dawson County; we have people that are willing to help you,” Bliss said. “Ask a family member, ask a friend, ask a teacher, ask somebody in your faith community, ask anyone — the bravest question you can ask is ‘will you help me’. And if I can break the stigma by letting you in the community know there are caring people all around you, I would be happy to stand up here today for that reason.” 

If someone is struggling and needs someone to talk to, call The National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-8255. For more information about raising awareness for suicide prevention and for mental health, call Dawson County Family Connection at 706-265-1981.