Today is World Mental Health Day. This year’s focus is suicide prevention. We need to start talking openly to spur change. That’s why I’m sharing my personal story and how it led me to a career, and a life, focused on resilience.
When I think of my dad, a million fond memories come flooding back. One of my favorites is our large family of seven traveling all over the U.S. in an orange motorhome which my dad converted from an old bread truck. He was handy like that. Always in the garage fixing cars or appliances. He especially relied on this skill when our family lived in Honduras as missionaries where the dirt roads meant our cars were constantly breaking down. Once, when our van’s gas tank got a leak, my dad fixed it with chewing gum.
By nature, my dad was a problem solver. When he died by suicide, we were faced with the greatest problem of our lives – how to deal with the tragedy and face life without him. In spite of a supportive family and community, I personally needed more help to deal with the loss. It wasn’t until I moved back to the States to attend college that I found this support. I started seeing a therapist who helped me develop tools to manage my emotions, begin to heal and move forward. This positive, powerful experience led me to study more about mental health, earn related academic degrees, and ultimately dedicate my work and career to helping others.
In my work at Children International, a global humanitarian organization helping children break the cycle of poverty, I support resilience and mental health programs that teach youth how to manage stress and trauma. We’re tackling mental health head on because we know that with poverty can come exposure to many stresses, such as domestic violence, gangs, drugs, absent parents, poor nutrition and lack of resources – including doctors, schools/education and safe spaces. These negative influences can impair brain development and negatively impact long-term physical and mental well-being.
To help youth in our programs handle their emotions and the pressure that comes with difficult (sometimes dire) life circumstances, Children International offers a variety of programs. Some use art, music or sports as an outlet.
Most recently, we tested and implemented a resilience curriculum, developed by Turning Point, for our children in Mexico and India. This program teaches kids how to calm and care for themselves while staying optimistic and seeking social support. Drawing, writing, storytelling and movement are a few ways kids express themselves through the program. The results were amazing. Children drastically improved their ability to cope and self-calm, skills that give them a fighting chance of breaking free from poverty.
Next year, we will train Children International staff around the globe on how to support our kids through the lens of Trauma Informed Care (TIC), a resilience-focused approach that involves seeing the whole person. TIC shifts the conversation from: “What’s wrong with you?” … to “What happened to you?” We know that childhood trauma is linked to mental health issues and poor physical health as adults. If we can intercede early and help youth deal with trauma, they have a much better chance of becoming healthy adults who can overcome challenges.
The Children International team also knows we have to nurture our own resilience skills to be in the best place to help our kids. The fact is, every one of us experiences trauma. It might come from reading news headlines of tragedy, an unexpected layoff or a difficult divorce. Trauma of every kind impacts brain function, influences how we respond to stress and changes how we engage with others.
In my work group, we talk about stress and trauma and use simple coping techniques. These exercises can be done individually or as a team for a “rapid reset” to start fresh when conversations or meetings are headed the wrong direction. Don’t be afraid to reach out to a colleague who seems stressed and ask, “Do you want to talk?” or suggest, “Let’s go on a quick walk and decompress.” Being mindful in the moment can make all the difference.
Thankfully, stress management resources are slowly making their way into the workplace. Organizations that train staff on mental health, work with leaders to be supportive of their teams and offer employee assistance programs understand the effects of mental health on business. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), depression alone is estimated to cause 200 million lost workdays each year in the U.S. That translates to $17B to $44B in costs to employers. Ouch! Without question, businesses that invest in mental health enjoy positive financial returns … resilient employees are more productive employees. The returns go beyond dollars, though. Resilient employees also add to a positive work culture.
Ignoring mental health impacts all of us. Nearly 800,000 people die from suicide every year. That’s one person every 40 seconds! This is vetted data from the World Health Organization (WHO) which also reports that for each suicide, there are more than 20 suicide attempts.
The WHO has launched a “40 seconds of action” campaign to raise awareness about how we all can work together to help prevent suicides. The idea is to take just 40 seconds of your time to focus on mental health, such as listening to someone’s story or sharing a positive message on social media. These actions may seem like small gestures, but actually can make a big difference. People struggling with depression or crisis have to know they’re not alone.
At Children International, we’re opening mental health dialogue with our youth and their parents. In Guatemala, for example, we’re working with youth struggling with suicidal ideation (thinking about suicide). Our goal is to educate the teens and their parents and give them coping tools and strategies so they can overcome these thoughts. The more we share the message “it’s okay to not be okay,” the less shame our kids feel. We are breaking down barriers one conversation at a time so more people get help.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death among ages 15 to 29 globally, according to the WHO.
We can all do our part. Be aware of suicide warning signs and reach out to anyone who may be at risk. Sadly, sometimes there are no signs. That was the case with my dad’s suicide. By learning resilience skills and seeking help, I found healing. I want everyone to have that same opportunity.
I still treasure a pink wooden box with a rose on it that my dad made for me one Christmas. It came with a note from him on the inside that says: “This box may look empty, but it’s filled with my love for you.” Somehow, nearly 20 years later when I open it, I can still feel his love. Thanks, dad. You’re forever missed.
In addition to her resilience and mental health work at Children International, Autumn Miller has a master’s degree in counseling and a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy.