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Suicide Prevention Month 2020

Crisis Center Staff discuss personal experiences and views on suicide prevention.

With September being Suicide Prevention Month, it’s important to raise awareness and increase education around suicide. While it is very important to circulate information on how to recognize the signs of suicide and offer support to those who are having suicidal thoughts, this year we focused on having an in-depth conversation with StarVista Crisis Prevention and Suicide Intervention Center (CISPC) staff about their experiences and views on suicide prevention.

Suicide Prevention Month is not just about circulating hotline numbers. It’s a time to have honest conversations about suicide, suicide prevention, and crisis services. It’s a time to ask ourselves “What more can we do? How can we help more people? How can we improve suicide prevention?”

It’s also a time to create more transparency within crisis services. Most StarVista CPSIC staff and volunteers have lived experience, which means they have had personal experience with mental health challenges or have been a user of crisis services in the past. They can really empathize with chatters and callers that use our crisis services, including Onyourmind, as they have experienced similar challenges themselves.

Read on to hear about personal experiences and views on suicide prevention of four of our CPSIC staff, including what they personally found helpful during their experiences with suicide, what they want to change about suicide prevention, and how our center handles interactions with law enforcement.


Do you think it is important for those who work in mental health crisis services to have lived experience with suicide?

While I think people without lived experience can certainly be great providers of emotional support and empathy, I think lived experience brings an added level of passion for this work. As a person who lives with both depression, anxiety, and a history of suicide attempts, I can say that this is the most personally fulfilling work I have ever done. It’s sometimes hard to pull myself away from the work, because I believe so much in what we’re doing in the community in regard to de-stigmatizing mental health and providing people with the space to be heard and feel cared for. Being able to sit in the darkness with others without trying to “fix” them or their problems is a unique skill that can feel scary and uncomfortable, but often those with lived experience deeply and intuitively understand the needs of someone in crisis.

Karina Chapa, Training Specialist

[A person with lived experience]’s knowledge and understanding will be different than someone who has learned about crisis through a textbook or work experience. A person knows something more intimately when you have experienced it first-hand. I believe having lived experience can be lifesaving and is very important for anyone who works in the crisis field. It creates deeper wells of empathy for those individuals that we work with… Folks can often use their personal expertise to change systems for the better. For example, I was hospitalized when I was in high school for a suicide attempt. When going back to school afterwards, no one was informed of what happened. I felt very alone and as if the world had just continued on without me. I remember my math teacher called me out for not completing my homework in front of the entire class. This experience made me feel even less connected to my community than before I was hospitalized. Now as a clinician with lived experience, I am better able to help clients transition back into school after being hospitalized. Had I never had such an experience, I may not have known the importance of ensuring there is a smooth return to school. I may not have been able to acknowledge the additional trauma that can occur when re-entering school after being hospitalized. My lived experience has made me a better clinician. I will say that folks with lived experience may experience being re-triggered or traumatized and it is essential that we engage in lots of self-care, therapy, and supervision. You do not have to be “healed” to be an effective crisis worker.

Brook Pollard, Clinician

Having lived experience is not necessary if you are working in mental health crisis services. An organization/agency can provide new hires (with no lived experience) tools and training on how to support individuals who are in crisis. But on the other hand, having lived experience is a plus. I myself have lived experience and it allows me to connect with the community I serve in a deeper way.

Vero Polanco, Youth Outreach Coordinator

You can be a wonderful, successful, and supportive provider of crisis services without lived experience. That being said, I think it’s very important to highlight when someone does have lived experience and also provides crisis support. Not only does it deepen empathy and real-world understanding of what it’s like to have suicidal thoughts or mental illness, it also helps reduce stigma of suicide and mental illness being prohibitive to helping others. There is a stigma that those with suicidal ideation or long-term mental health challenges cannot be good supporters or successful within the mental health field, and that’s absolutely false. I began working in crisis services while still dealing with serious mental illness and I continue to show up, be a reliable member of my team, and work passionately to help prevent suicide.

Allie Rogge, Volunteer Coordinator

What is the most important aspect of suicide crisis services and intervention?

The most important aspect of crisis intervention service is community building. When I was contemplating suicide my depression and anxiety told me that I was all alone in my experience and that I was broken. Suicide prevention services are important ways to let people know that they don’t have to fight this fight alone, and they are not broken.

Karina Chapa, Training Specialist

Meeting the client where they are at. Each person has their own unique story with suicide and therefore their needs will vary. This is not an experience that will fit neatly into a cookie cutter therefore folks in this field should be able to adapt their interventions to what is in front of them.

Brook Pollard, Clinician

There are a few important aspects of crisis services and intervention. First, meeting the individuals where they are mentally, emotionally, and physically. Second, listen actively. Third, being sincere and nonjudgmental is very important.

Vero Polanco, Youth Outreach Coordinator

I think the most important aspect of suicide prevention and intervention is connection. We need individual, authentic connection between the counselor and the service user to best support that person. When I speak to users on the Onyourmind chat and tell them I care about them, I do mean it. When I go to bed at night I am thinking about the chatters, hoping they are feeling a little better, that they were able to have a good meal or that they will be able to sleep well. That level of true empathy is important. We also need community connection between crisis services and the population they serve so that the community truly feels that the service is supportive, helpful, and trustworthy. And if that’s not the case, we need to be willing to change.

Allie Rogge, Volunteer Coordinator

How do you view your role in suicide prevention?

I see my role as being more of an educator on the topic of suicide and suicide prevention.

Karina Chapa, Training Specialist

I believe we ALL have a role in suicide prevention. No one person or role will be the answer to suicide because it is such a complex thing. We need to create life promoting communities in order to prevent suicide. This type of environment would be filled with formal- mental health agencies, doctors, crisis centers, schools, housing help, food banks- and informal- religious figures, community events, ties to culture, coping skills- resources for individuals that may be having thoughts of suicide. I view myself as one life promoting formal and informal resource within a larger context.

Brook Pollard, Clinician

My role in suicide prevention is providing direct service through psycho-education. I am passionate about my role and supporting the communities I serve. One of the skills that I take pride in so much is my ability to connect and build rapport with others. Mental health and suicide prevention are hard topics to talk about. I myself know how hard it is and how hard being vulnerable can be. When I provide services I go in with an open mind, open heart, and my patience.

Vero Polanco, Youth Outreach Coordinator

When working on the chat or on the hotline, I view myself as someone who is helping create a safe and nonjudgmental space for others to process their experiences and feelings. While that seems like a simple thing, it’s not something to which a lot of people have had access. I am a partner with the person in crisis, not their savior, and I think that’s a really important distinction. When working as the volunteer coordinator, I’m making sure the Crisis Center functions so that all of our staff and volunteers can provide that same kind of support.

Allie Rogge, Volunteer Coordinator

If you could change one aspect about suicide prevention for the better, what would you change?

Right now, the only option for most crisis centers to initiate a rescue for a caller is to call the local police department for a welfare check. If I could change anything, I would want every county to have a 24/7 mobile crisis team to respond to mental health crisis rather than the police department.

Karina Chapa, Training Specialist

I would make suicide prevention services and information accessible in multiple languages and to early aged students. Currently at the crisis center there are two individuals who speak both Spanish and English. If there were more, we would be able to reach more parents and families. Mental health and suicide prevention is universal. All if not most of us experience changes, crisis, etc. Everyone, including students and children as young as elementary school. The conversation around mental health can be very beneficial to younger aged students.

Vero Polanco, Youth Outreach Coordinator

I would want to have more services before the crisis intervention stage- so more funding for low-cost therapy, better substance use programs, more community education, programs to support the unhoused and other at-risk people. Those are all aspects of suicide prevention that most don’t associate as being part of suicide prevention. I would also want to increase the accessibility of all services for marginalized populations and the disabled.

Allie Rogge, Volunteer Coordinator

What is something about suicide that is still deeply misunderstood, and what can we do to change understanding and reduce stigma?

I think a lot of people feel that those who experience suicidal thoughts, especially for long periods of time, are “crazy” or “a lost cause.” This kind of thinking has to stop if we are to reduce stigma. All of us will find ourselves in a crisis of some sort throughout our lifetime, and it’s very important to learn how to manage during those times, and how to support our friends and family through those times.

Karina Chapa, Training Specialist

One misconception about suicide is that it is this very scary abnormal thing that only happens to the most disturbed individuals. Can suicide be terrifying? YES. Can thoughts of suicide feel abnormal? Absolutely. However, if we as a community continue to talk about suicide as this idea that only happens to “crazy” or “unstable” people, we will continue to have stigma surrounding it. This can have lasting impacts. People having thoughts of suicide may feel more shame, guilt, or fear, which could prohibit them from reaching out to others. One thing that can help reduce this type of stigma is awareness. Education is key, whether through presentations, media, panels, or books. I think this is an area that individuals with lived experience can also step in. They can help normalize that folks that have thoughts, past or present, of suicide are just people.

Brook Pollard, Clinician

There is a significant amount of misunderstanding and stigma when it comes to suicide. One misunderstanding that comes up quite frequently about suicide is that those who experience suicidal thoughts and/or attempts do so because they are given that idea by someone else. This misunderstanding holds a lot of people back from asking others, who are exhibiting suicidal signs, the crucial question… “Are you thinking about suicide?” In many of the presentations I have given to schools and parents this is the most common misunderstanding. In order to change this understanding, education is key. Learning about how important mental health is and how thoughts or acts of suicide is a choice made by the individual and not by someone else giving them the idea. Communication and conversations around suicide and support can also help reduce stigma.

Vero Polanco, Youth Outreach Coordinator

I think people still really misunderstand chronic suicidal ideation or non-suicidal suicidal ideation. There are many who live with chronic suicidal ideation without reaching crisis points for years. I was one of them, though I did have some periods where I was higher risk for acting on my ideation. There are levels of support that are appropriate for different risk levels and we need to get better at matching the right support to the level of risk. We risk traumatization if we use inappropriate interventions.

Allie Rogge, Volunteer Coordinator

If you have had lived experience with suicide, what is one thing that helped you during that time? What is one thing that didn’t help?

I don’t know if I can point to any one thing that helped me during the times I was contemplating suicide. I think going to college and finally moving out of my family’s home was a huge factor in my wellness journey. I used a lot of self-help books (CBT and DBT workbooks) to help manage my anxiety and panic attacks, as therapy was not accessible at the time. One book called “When Things Fall Apart” by Pema Chodron really sticks out in my mind as having been incredibly helpful in getting me out of a dark space. I pulled a quote from that book and carried it around for a year; the quote reads, “Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible in us be found.”

Karina Chapa, Training Specialist

My life has been intertwined with suicide. I have both experienced loss to suicide as well as had chronic thoughts of suicide (with a few attempts) throughout my high school and college years. One thing that was particularly helpful for me during that period of my life was finding ways to express myself. For me that was through creative things like art, theater, poetry, and movies. Even on my days where I felt so distant from others, I was able to connect to my passions, even when it didn’t feel quite the same. I believe that was life-saving for me. It is honestly hard for me to isolate one thing that was not helpful. What I can boil it down to is individuals in my life not meeting me where I was at. I had some incredible people who were trying to support me during this time but in ways that felt either impossible, like getting me to go on a walk when just getting up to use the restroom felt challenging, or not helpful, like giving me unsolicited advice. Even with the good intentions behind it, it felt like I wasn’t being heard or seen.

Brook Pollard, Clinician

Judgement never helped my thoughts and attempts of suicide. I remember after my first attempt I was told I was “dumb” and “just wanted attention.” I was judged by family members who were not aware of how important mental health was/is and I was also judged by the emergency room nurses and physician on staff. On the other hand, I will never forget my best friend in high school and her constant support. She said to me “I love you, boo, and I will constantly remind you how important you are to me.” Support and love is what I needed but thought I did not deserve.

Vero Polanco, Youth Outreach Coordinator

If you add up the total time within my life that I have lived with active suicidal ideation it would be about a decade, and I’m in my late twenties so that’s a significant portion of my life. During one of my psychiatric holds in the hospital, my assigned psychiatrist told me I had “a victim mentality,” and when the general physician saw my self-harm marks she said I was “too pretty to be doing that to [myself.]” Not helpful and very stigmatizing! What helped me the most was understanding that my thoughts of wanting to kill myself were a coping strategy. It sounds weird, but feeling like I had an “out” helped me live through really awful circumstances. Over time I was able to change my circumstances and I realized I actually really wanted to live. I still sometimes get random suicidal thoughts when I’m really stressed out, but now I know it’s just something my brain does and isn’t the “truth” of how I feel. They are a warning that I need to pay more attention to my mental health. I’ll probably always have them occasionally, but I know I can live a wonderful life even with suicidal thoughts, and I have the tools to manage them.

Allie Rogge, Volunteer Coordinator

How does the Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention Center handle its relationship with law enforcement? Is it mindful of vulnerabilities for marginalized communities like BIPOC, LGBT, and the disabled?

We train the volunteers on the hotline to practice least invasive interventions when a caller is in crisis. In a crisis intervention call, our goal is to work collaboratively with the caller to stay safe. If the caller does not want police involvement, I will do everything in my power to figure out a way to keep that person safe without having to call for a welfare check from the police. That being said, safety comes first always, and we do occupationally have to work with the police to make sure that our callers are safe.

Karina Chapa, Training Specialist

A wonderful question and another misconception about suicide prevention work. At our center, we ONLY involve the police as a last resort to keep someone safe. We also understand the need to collaborate with law enforcement if there are no other options to maintain safety. Some scenarios where we may need to include law enforcement is if there is an attempt in progress or if our callers/clients/chatters are not able to engage with us but had expressed intent to die. Safety FOR ALL callers/chatters/clients is our focus at the crisis center. This value is part of the reason why we do not always involve law enforcement. We recognize that the police are not safe for all of our users. This is just one way that we are mindful of specific vulnerabilities that minorities may face. Another way is how we go about referrals. We want to make sure that any referral we are giving is appropriate and accessible for the caller/chatter/client.

Brook Pollard, Clinician

The Crisis Center is mindful of the vulnerabilities of the communities we serve. If we are not fully aware then we make sure we learn and educate ourselves. I am aware that we have a relationship with the law enforcement, and they have worked with hotline personnel with callers.

Vero Polanco, Youth Outreach Coordinator

Our volunteers and staff are very aware of the real harm that involving law enforcement can cause when responding to a crisis. On the chat, we try to work collaboratively with the chatter to establish safety without outside intervention. In cases where that is not possible, we then consider involving services like law enforcement. We have a lot of users on Onyourmind who are not from San Mateo County, where we are based, and know that there are areas where it is far more risky to involve law enforcement.

Allie Rogge, Volunteer Coordinator

If you are having suicidal thoughts or are in crisis, please use one of the following resources to find support:

  • 24/7 San Mateo County Hotline: 650 570 0350
  • 24/7 National Hotline: 1 800 273 8255
  • National Crisis Text: Text “HOME” to 741741
  • Chat on Onyourmind
  • Lifeline Chat

Looking for more information on suicide? Read StarVista’s Suicide Prevention Month blog.

What would you change about suicide prevention? Let us know in the comments below!

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