According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States.
Most everyone would agree suicide is the result of a mental health problem, which makes it unfortunate that Texas ranks dead last in access to mental health care, according to a recent survey released by Mental Health America. In our state anthem, we proclaim Texas is “boldest and grandest, withstanding every test,” yet we are failing the test of providing mental health care to Texans. Maybe we have too much faith in our cowboy roots.
As a psychologist who has worked in community, state and federal mental health programs in Texas, I have seen the suffering and heartache that results from mental health issues such as substance abuse, traumatic experiences and family violence. I was present at the tragic events of Santa Fe High School in 2018, the 2013 building collapse of Houston’s Southwest Inn, and the recent explosion at Watson Grinding and Manufacturing in Houston earlier this year.
I have seen the horror of those moments, and I have treated the traumatized survivors. The detached, stoic Western hero that populates many of our Texan archetypal stories would be unaffected by these scenes. The problem is, some men and women buy into this cowboy mentality, believing vulnerability and emotions are weakness — and I have seen them literally at the end of their rope.
Instead, we should embrace other Texas traditions, such as candor and honesty, pitching in to help others, and being a hero for the downtrodden. I have found that those characteristics can be harnessed to help Texans who find themselves on a dark trail ride.
As I write this, we are in the midst of another unique crisis, the coronavirus pandemic. Throughout our state, residents are wondering when they will be able to go out in public without a mask, whether or not their loved ones will contract the illness, and how they will adapt to a new normal that seems anything but normal.
If the corona-crisis teaches us anything, it is that we are interdependent. The self-sufficient cowboy is a myth — we need each other. It is now evident we are dependent on total strangers to keep us safe by maintaining social distance, by not hoarding, and by putting themselves at risk to take care of us when we are ill.
The pandemic not only has challenged our sense of physical health but also our cowboy psyche. It has increased our anxieties, depressed us further, made some of us drink more than we should and, for a few, has brought us closer to a decision of ending our life, perhaps especially if you insist on being a lone cowpoke.
Suicide is not something that just happens to other people. While it is the 10th leading cause of death in our country, it is the leading cause of death that we don’t talk about. Nearly 4,000 Texans died last year by suicide. More of us Texans died by suicide than in motor vehicle accidents or by homicide.
Yet you would not know it by perusing headlines featuring the current murder statistics or by listening to public-service announcements reminding you to “click it (your seatbelt) or ticket.” Nor is it well known that children and young people are at even greater risk for taking their life.
Despite its prevalence, suicide is among the most preventable causes of death. Research published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry clearly shows that easy access to mental health care reduces the number of suicides. Research also demonstrates that if you remove the person’s planned means for suicide (e.g. by hiding the gun), it is unlikely he or she will employ another method to end his or her life. Sometimes a cowboy doesn’t need his gun.
Prevention requires communication, not isolation. Asking people about their thoughts of suicide does not increase the risk of them taking their lives. Likewise, connecting by phone, email or even postcard with people who are contemplating suicide — dramatically reduces the likelihood that they will take their life.
In one study, follow-up postcards sent by a psychiatric hospital to persons who had been admitted for an overdose attempt helped reduce subsequent hospitalizations for overdose by 50% over those who were not sent those postcards. Human connection saves lives — and promoting the need for connection and awareness is the reason my daughter, Kimi Buser-Clancy, and I created the podcast, Leaving the Valley: What You Should Know About Suicide.
Suicide and the subsequent suffering it causes to those who are left behind usually can be prevented. To do so, Texans need to be able to access mental health care because even cowboys need a posse to act as a support system.
Whether it’s an irregular event, such as a global pandemic, or an annual event such as Suicide Prevention Month each September, we sometimes can use a reminder that even the fictional Lone Ranger needed a sidekick. Real people need help; they show pain and from time to time, they can benefit from speaking with a counselor, psychologist or therapist — or at the very least, a friend.
Suicide Prevention Month and the pandemic present the perfect opportunity to advocate for our politicians to take mental health more seriously and make it possible for all Texans to access care. Let’s use the present crisis to move away from the lone cowboy and toward the pioneer spirit of helping each other.
Sam Buser is a Houston-area psychologist. He cohorts the podcast “Leaving the Valley: What You Should Know About Suicide,” available at LeavingTheValley.com, and is the co-author of The Guys-Only Guide to Getting Over Divorce.
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