by Sydne Tursky

Every 16 hours, one Arkansan dies by suicide. That means a total 11,000 years of potential life lost annually. Among 15- to 34-year-olds, suicide is the second leading cause of death in the state, and the 10th leading cause over all age groups, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Five percent of adults in Arkansas live with serious mental health conditions such as depression or schizophrenia, higher than the national average, yet less than half of Arkansans with mental illnesses receive treatment, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Despite these alarming statistics, suicide and the mental illnesses that precede it are still given low, though admittedly increasing, priority in Arkansas; according to Mental Health America, the state ranks 37th in the nation for mental health, based on quality of care and prevalence of mental illness. Even as awareness of these issues increases, it remains a subject that many people find difficult and awkward to talk about – but experts say public discourse is critical to help people manage their mental health and seek help.

When no one talks about suicidal thoughts or mental health problems, “people that are having issues feel that they’re the only one; they feel very isolated,” says Susie Reece, executive director of Suicide Prevention Allies. “And suicidal thoughts and mental illnesses are very isolating already. They don’t necessarily recognize that this is something that a lot of people are dealing with, and it starts to compound, and that’s when they become high risk.”

Public discourse surrounding mental illness is almost always negative. Schizophrenia, depression and other conditions are viewed as labels that strip strength from their victims, but this perception is harmful. People with mental illnesses may have unique struggles, but they are fully capable of being accomplished, empathetic, productive people that have a lot to contribute to our society, Reece says. 

“Even though it seems like we’re opening up the discussion of mental health, we’re not talking about the other side of it,” Reece says. “We really need to start changing the narrative.”

People are often hesitant to talk about suicide because they worry that it will encourage others to commit suicide, but this is generally not the case, says Buster Lackey, executive director of the Arkansas chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

“There’s definitely a fine line between glorifying and glamorizing something and making it part of the discussion,” Reece says. “We’re constantly trying to navigate between triggering someone…and having discussion so that people realize they can seek help. Suicide stems very much from mental illness. It’s no different from any other type of death except we’re able to prevent it if we talk about it.”

The more attention is given to these issues, the more funding they will receive. Suicide is the least funded of all the top 10 causes of death in the nation; because there isn’t as much research on the subject. A lot of experts still don’t understand about the root issues behind suicide, she says. 

Unfortunately, there is still a long way to go before suicide and mental health are given the same attention as other medical problems. Our society has a long history of keeping quiet about this subject.

“For years, we have not really addressed the issue in public,” Lackey said. “We’ve been really, really good at sweeping it under the table and not addressing it or even understanding it. Now, we’ve got programs across the state like ours that educate…Before, that just wasn’t out there. You didn’t talk about it, you didn’t talk about going to a counselor, you for sure never mentioned going to a psychiatrist because only the crazy people went to psychiatrists. And that’s what we’ve got to change.”

Reece said her favorite illustration of the issue goes like this:

“What color is the breast cancer ribbon?”

Everyone always answers “Pink!” immediately.

“What color is the suicide prevention ribbon?”

Only one person she’s asked has ever had the correct answer. 

(It’s turquoise and purple.)