Suicide was among the top nine leading causes of death for people ages 10 to 64 in 2021. That’s the alarming statistic from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as we observe National Suicide Prevention Month in September.
Poor mental health affects many people today, crosses all lines and can impact both young and old. The CDC said that suicide rates have increased by approximately 36 percent between 2000-2021. In 2021 alone, an estimated 12.3 million American adults seriously thought about suicide, 3.5 million planned a suicide attempt and 1.7 million people attempted suicide.
Although there have been strides to offer more services and resources to those who are struggling, including the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, there are issues many still face.
“I think the most challenging problem is just feeling overwhelmed and trying to emotionally unpack [their feelings],” said Tania Fallert-Del Gatto, associate director of El Centro de Amistad — a multilingual organization that offers mental health services.
“[They experience] sadness, feelings of despair and hopelessness. Sometimes, they have anxiety on top of the depression, which makes them feel even more worried and nervous and not want to ask for help because they might think they’re a burden on someone.”
It’s also been difficult for those trying to provide help due to the stigma in some communities, including the Latino community, around the subject of mental health.
“I think some of the challenges that we’re still noticing is that people are not reaching out when they’re struggling,” said Karla Zenteno, bilingual-Spanish program coordinator for Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services. “I think mental health is still taboo in some places with specific cultures, so people are not reaching out for help when they need to.
“We’re still seeing mental health as a weakness instead of seeing it just like any regular illness. If we get sick from the flu, then we go to a doctor. I think mental health falls into the same category; we just need to reach out to someone when we need extra support.”
It’s also important for clinicians who are treating members of the LGBTQ+ community that they make their clients feel safe when talking about their mental health.
A 2022 survey of LGBTQ+ youth by the Trevor Project found that in that past year, 45 percent seriously considered attempting suicide, 14 percent had attempted suicide and 60 percent who wanted mental health care were not able to get it.
“We do have clients that range in their preferred gender pronoun as well as sexual orientation,” said Sophia Cardenas, the team lead at the San Fernando Valley Community Mental Health Center. “If a client needs something specifically tailored to them, then we do utilize resources in the area, like the LGBTQ+ Center, and we get them connected if they want specific groups.”
Cardenas said that there has been an increase in transgender individuals coming to the center seeking help, who have described their struggle in getting services due to the stigma and difficulty in finding the right therapist.
“I think we tend to educate ourselves as providers because we understand that a lot of the hate speech and different things that have unfortunately been happening and that have increased,” Cardenas said. “A lot of the time, the clients are looking for that safe space, especially if they’ve had past traumas or recent trauma. We do try to meet them in an empathetic and client-centered approach so that they can be empowered to either seek resources or find their own voice.”
The Demand for Help Surpasses Available Help
Although there’s been a growing need for mental health services, there aren’t enough clinicians in the workforce that are available to meet the demand, causing many who are struggling to not get the help they need. Too many people fall between the cracks. There can be long delays for people attempting to get appointments with mental health providers at public health agencies. These delays can further cause increased anxiety and a sense of hopelessness.
Gatto said that there’s a large disparity in the mental health services across Los Angeles County and that it’s “impossible” to meet the immense community need due to the lack of mental health professionals.
“There’s a huge workforce issue in general, but I think it’s huge in mental health and social services,” said Gatto.
“We also need more Latinos that can speak Spanish in this profession to support the community — whether it be somebody like a licensed psychologist, licensed marriage family therapist or social worker. Those are typically the staff that are required to provide those services,” said Gatto.
The staff shortage [at public agencies] problem is made worse, Gatto said, when these clinicians go into private practice. A private practice setting is more stable, where somebody is more likely to show up every week, versus a community setting where the population is “more chronic and more severe” and outreach efforts are more intense because clinicians have to meet their patients where they’re at.
Zenteno pointed out that there are some people who have reached out for services, but for one reason or another, they didn’t have a good experience and are unwilling to try again.
“A lot of times, people are under the wrong treatment, and that’s why they don’t see any improvement and they start losing faith in the process, or sometimes people are just mentally ill and they don’t have someone else as a support system and they need someone that can hold them while they reach out for support,” Zenteno said. “Unfortunately, yes, not everybody has that support system or sometimes we don’t know how to support someone, and I think that’s the piece that we’re missing.
“I think a lot of times, we are afraid to talk to someone that’s suffering from mental illness because we don’t know what to say or we’re just afraid to say the wrong thing.”
When talking with a family member or friend who you think is having issues with their mental health, it’s important to be open and thoughtful when asking questions — even if they’re uncomfortable questions.
“When we have to evaluate clients, one of the first things we train our staff is how to ask somebody if they’re suicidal because it’s not an easy question to ask,” said Gatto. “You’re a stranger coming into this person’s life and you’re asking them personal questions, but with a family [member], it could be a little easier because you have that relationship.”
“Once you ask someone a straightforward question, they will answer it because people want to share with you what’s going on,” Zenteno said. “They are waiting for that person that really cares and that someone who’s really interested in listening to what they’re feeling.”
“Having that empathy versus sympathy approach can really help,” said Jennifer Adams, licensed marriage and family therapist at San Fernando Valley Community Mental Health Center. “Sympathy is, ‘Oh, I’m sorry that’s happening to you,’ versus ‘I can understand how difficult that might be.’ … I worked with a lot of suicidal clients before, and a lot of the time, there’s a difference between them wanting to actually take their own life versus just wanting someone to understand and just hear them out and provide that safe space when they’ve never had one.”
Where to Get Help
There are local centers and organizations for those struggling with their mental health. El Centro de Amistad, based in Canoga Park, also has offices in the City of San Fernando, and people can reach either the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline or the San Fernando Valley branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
NAMI offers its own classes and support groups, including family-to-family, peer-to-peer, and youth programs. Their website also offers information that includes information about prescription medication, mental health conservatorships and wellness centers in the valley.
There is also the National Mental Health Hotline at 866-903-3787 that is available 24/7, the Peer-Run Warm Line at 855-845-7415 for nonemergency mental and emotional support, and the Trevor Project Lifeline at 866-488-7386 for LGBTQ+ youth.
“The most important thing that we should let people know is that there’s help, that there’s support and we [our center] are one of them and they can always reach out,” Zenteno said.
For more information about NAMI, go to https://www.namisfv.org/. To learn more about Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services, go to https://didihirsch.org/services/suicide-prevention/. For more about the services at El Centro de Amistad, visit https://ecda.org/. For more information about the San Fernando Valley Community Mental Health Center, go to https://www.movinglivesforward.org/.