We need to manage behavioral health risks, but how?
April 21, 2017
Don Ritchie was a most unusual sort of hero. He wasn’t a soldier or a first responder. His heroism lay in simple acts of kindness – and watching out the window.
Ritchie lived in Australia, next to the Gap, a cliff in Sydney that was a spot where people often came to attempt suicide by jumping. Ritchie spent a lot of his time watching over the Gap. When he saw someone who looked upset, he’d walk out to them and ask if he could help in some way. Often, he invited them home for a visit. By the time Ritchie died in 2012, he’d been officially credited with saving the lives of more than 160 people, though his friends and family say it was many, many more.
I came across a thread on Reddit devoted to stories of people who had decided to kill themselves, but didn’t. Reading those stories, they have one striking thing in common. For each person contemplating or in the act of committing suicide, someone offered an ear. Often it was a stranger. And because of those strangers, there is a family somewhere who didn’t have to grieve a tragic loss.
In my last post, I asked whether we can afford to manage behavioral health risks, and answered that we can’t afford not to. Which begged the question, how?
I started to write about mental health treatment, and the fact that it works. Even – maybe especially – short term treatment helps many more people than it doesn’t, with positive outcomes on quality of life and workplace productivity. As little as one session with a competent mental health professional from an employee assistance program has been shown to have a positive impact. I could cite the studies, many of them.
Workplace programs work, too, and I could have written about them. Workplaces that focus on both physical and mental well-being have better productivity, and the employees are happier and more engaged. When mental health care is available, and access is encouraged, outcomes improve. I could cite studies about that, too.
But the real problem that gets in the way of mental health treatment is fear. We fear what we don’t understand, and we shun what we fear. That’s called stigma. Mental illness has stigma in abundance.
People who are shunned, or afraid they will be, suffer alone. Just consider that for a moment: someone with a mental illness suffers, and when they suffer alone, things get worse. Being isolated, they become ever less likely to get help. They don’t always spiral out of control, but if they are going to, it will be in isolation.
When I think about the simplest way to manage the risk of behavioral disorders, it comes down to this one thing: educate yourself, calm your fears, and reach out. It won’t hurt you, it won’t hurt the other person, and you just might save a life.