Seek­ing help when needed

COC lost 8 stu­dents in last 6 years to sui­cide de­spite help be­ing avail­able

The Signal - - FRONT PAGE - By Perry Smith Sig­nal Deputy Man­ag­ing Ed­i­tor

Men­tal health pro­fes­sion­als know there are no cer­tain­ties in their line of work — and if some­one doesn’t reach out, they can’t get help.

At Col­lege of the Canyons, for ex­am­ple, no stu­dent who’s been through the coun­sel­ing cen­ter of­fered on cam­pus has com­mit­ted sui­cide. Still, the col­lege is not im­mune from the na­tional cri­sis that rep­re­sents the No. 2 cause of death na­tion­ally in in­di­vid­u­als 18-24.

In fact, over the past six years COC has lost eight stu­dents to sui­cide, none of whom ever used the col­lege’s men­tal health re­sources.

“There’s no guar­an­tee,” said Larry Schallert, as­sis­tant di­rec­tor of Col­lege of the Canyons Stu­dent Health Cen­ter. “But we know that peo­ple who do ac­tu­ally make it in, have not taken their lives.”

In De­cem­ber, a well-liked Hart dis­trict se­nior stu­den­tath­lete killed her­self, leav­ing a com­mu­nity mourn­ing another life cut short. At the be­gin­ning of this year, a Sau­gus fam­ily of four was killed in a mur­der-sui­cide by Michael Birnkrant, who killed his wife, chil­dren and then him­self in Jan­uary, ac­cord­ing to homi­cide in­ves­ti­ga­tors with the Sher­iff’s De­part­ment.

While celebrity sui­cides raise the pro­file of the sui­cide dis­cus­sion tem­po­rar­ily, the stigma and other bar­ri­ers to men­tal health are a big part of the fo­cus for the SCV Com­mit­tee on Sui­cide Preven­tion PostVen­tion and Well­ness, which meets monthly at COC and fo­cuses on how it can fur­ther de­velop part­ner­ships and ac­cess to in­crease the avail­abil­ity of men­tal health re­sources in the Santa Clarita Val­ley.

“In re­sponse to the most re­cent losses of well-known celebri­ties and the new Netflix sea­son of ‘13 (Rea­sons Why),’ we are en­cour­aged to dou­ble our ef­forts to be vig­i­lant with those with whom we are close both pro­fes­sion­ally and per­son­ally,” Schallert wrote in a re­cent email to the group, which in­cludes rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the city of Santa Clarita, the Sher­iff’s De­part­ment, Henry Mayo Ne­whall Hos­pi­tal and stake­hold­ers in the men­tal health com­mu­nity, among oth­ers.

The sup­port is con­stant at the col­lege, whether it’s through the hand­ful of free coun­sel­ing ses­sions that are avail­able free to all stu­dents, Schallert said, or the fre­quent events the col­lege hosts around rais­ing aware­ness of the re­sources, such as its re­cent Shine a Light event. (The event puts 1,100 pa­per lanterns in the col­lege’s Honor Grove — one for ev­ery col­lege stu­dent who killed them­selves in the last year — in May, for Men­tal Health Aware­ness Month.)

Af­ter the sui­cides of world-fa­mous de­signer Kate Spade and then, days later, renowned foodie and TV star An­thony Bour­dain, the county Public Health De­part­ment sought to echo the mes­sage that’s been spread lo­cally for sev­eral years now:

“Sui­cide is dev­as­tat­ing, and we all need to come to­gether to re­duce stigma and en­sure that it is easy for any­one to con­nect to sup­port,” said Dr. Bar­bara Fer­rer, di­rec­tor of the Los An­ge­les County Public Health De­part­ment. “We urge every­one to take time to learn about the warn­ing signs of sui­cide and how each of us can help some­one who may be at risk. Re­sources are avail­able to help peo­ple in need of sup­port.”

Lo­cal ex­pert Kris­tine De Bree, a li­censed mar­riage and fam­ily ther­a­pist who spe­cial­izes in Eye Move­ment De­sen­si­ti­za­tion and Re­pro­cess­ing, or EMDR, a spe­cific type of ther­apy, also dis­cussed the im­por­tance of be­ing able to have a con­ver­sa­tion around the subject, which in and of it­self can be a chal­lenge due to the stigma at­tached to men­tal health.

“This of course can of­ten be a trig­ger­ing and very sen­si­tive topic,” De Bree said. “What is im­por­tant to un­der­stand is that sui­ci­dal­ity ex­ists on a con­tin­uum... where an in­di­vid­ual is on that con­tin­uum de­ter­mines the type of treat­ment and the level of care that needs to be sought out.”

Es­sen­tially, every­one is dif­fer­ent, she said, which means that the abil­ity to have a con­ver­sa­tion with a men­tal health pro­fes­sional is vi­tal, but it’s also im­por­tant to make sure that a per­son seek­ing help is get­ting it from some­one trained to help with a spe­cific prob­lem.

One thing the ex­perts agree on: There’s no one­size-fits-all ap­proach to men­tal health.

“It is im­per­a­tive to have proper eval­u­a­tion by a trained pro­fes­sional,” De Bree said, “in or­der to de­ter­mine the ap­pro­pri­ate and nec­es­sary level of care.”

Sig­nal file photo

Stu­dents walk by hun­dreds of lanterns in the Honor Grove at Col­lege of the Canyons for the Shine a Light event on sui­cide preven­tion. COC has lost eight stu­dents to sui­cide in the last six years, ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cials.

Sig­nal file photo

Larry Schallert, as­sis­tant di­rec­tor of Stu­dent Health & Well­ness/Men­tal Health Pro­gram and chair of the Santa Clarita Val­ley Sui­cide Preven­tion, PostVen­tion and Well­ness Com­mit­tee talks dur­ing a dis­cus­sion among com­mit­tee mem­bers from dif­fer­ent agen­cies at Col­lege of the Canyons in Va­len­cia in Jan­uary 2018.

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