I’ve put together a list of helpful national and local Portland, OR and Seattle, WA resources for mental health and suicide prevention. This list reflects that there is no one-size fits all solution — text or online chat may be a better option for somebody who doesn’t have privacy to talk, and with “warmlines,” people may wish to seek help even if their life is not imminently in danger. Please let me know if any of these links are broken, or if you have new ones to suggest. Thank you, and be well.
Founding Members of the St. John’s Suicide Prevention Team: Elizabeth Gadwa, Laura Bee, and Kristen Gray
https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals. Telephone and online chat available.
https://www.nami.orgNAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, is the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness. Oregon NAMI Chapter:https://namior.org/
http://gettrainedtohelp.com – Suicide First Aid. Free trainings in suicide prevention for the general public, youth workers, and more. Includes the ASIST curriculum.
Me, standing under the St. John’s Bridge in my neighborhood in Portland, Oregon. The bridge is the site of weddings, festivals, film shoots, and deaths.
How to Save a Million Lives
It starts with being visible.
April 18, 2018
In anyone’s memory, certain dates stand out forever.
I remember standing in my aunt and uncle’s sunny family room in San Mateo, California on April 18, 2018. That was when the customer service rep on the phone told me I did not qualify for life insurance. This was a problem. In fact, it was a huge problem. It meant I would not be able to obtain what is called “Key Man” Insurance, which shields professional investors in case of the accidental or untimely death of the CEO or other essential team members. Key Man Insurance is a must for any startup seeking serious investor funding (seed round or VC). Unknowingly, I had raised funds from friends and family for a venture that could not succeed with me at the helm.
I checked it out. I got a second quote. It didn’t matter that I was healthy and had managed the condition successfully for 19 years.
This wasn’t a case of bias, or stigma. It was a numbers game. The diagnosis is bipolar disorder. The reason I couldn’t get life insurance was that my diagnosis carries a 15 – 20% lifetime fatality rate. That means that as many as one in five people with bipolar disorder may die by suicide. (National Institute of Mental Health, as cited by DBSA.)
If present trends continue, over 855,000 of the 5.7 million individuals living today with bipolar disorder in the U.S will die by suicide. That’s almost a million people.
We are living in the middle of an epidemic. And one ever seems to notice.
Our company’s investor woes seemed pretty trivial in comparison.
Which brings me to the other date. Just over a year ago.
October 17, 2018
On that single day, in my home city of Portland, Oregon, we lost three people to suicide. One of the deaths happened a few hundred feet from my apartment, when a woman jumped off the St. John’s Bridge. I found out when I heard the sirens and saw the flashing red lights. I took some roses out of a vase, went outside, walked down the hill, and put the roses by the police line.
For me, that death brought home the reality of the suicide epidemic in America. I don’t know whether any of the three people who died had a diagnosis, but given the high risk factor and the fact that 1 in 23 Americans are bipolar, it is likely. Suicide fatality rates are actually higher for people with bipolar disorder than for those with unipolar depression(NCBI). Because suicide is a social epidemic, the death of one individual can result in the deaths of other individuals, who may not even share the same diagnosis. There a lot of reasons why this post has been hard for me to write. One of them is that this year, in the time since I started writing this blog post, about three weeks ago, I learned of two other likely suicides in my home communities: one here in Oregon and one in Massachusetts. The taboo around speaking about suicide is strong, just like the taboo against discussing bipolar disorder. I went to a walk this month by the American Society for Suicide Prevention. It’s a worthy event, and it does a lot of good for survivors. But nowhere — nowhere — was bipolar disorder mentioned as a cause or a killer. Talking about America’s suicide epidemic without talking about bipolar is like trying to talk about heart disease and never mentioning high blood pressure.
Last fall it felt like the bodies were literally dropping from overhead. Those deaths, in particular the one so close to home, jolted me out of complacency. I kept thinking to myself, “If fifteen percent of bipolar people are dying by suicide, why don’t we hear about it? Why aren’t we doing more to stop it?”
I had been marked as a plague victim and I didn’t even know it.
I found a replacement CEO for my startup. After stepping down, my plan had been to take a course or two in data science and rejoin the corporate world. Instead, I found myself on an entirely different path. I earned a certification in Life Coaching, another as a Peer Support Specialist, and completed the excellent QPR suicide prevention training which is offered for free to lay people in the Portland area. The goal: work part time coaching bipolar and entrepreneurial clients from around the world. Spend the rest of my time building something cool.
The crazy thing is, one year later it actually seems to have worked.
The people I have coached confound my expectations. They are C-level executives, computer programmers, bankers, and accountants. Leave every expectation you have surrounding bipolar people and their temperament or personality type at the door. Just know, above all, we are here. And there are a lot of us. The recovery rate for bipolar disorder is 80%. (Health Central) Mostly you can’t tell us apart from anybody else. Because when the medication works well for us, like most other Americans, we’d much rather concentrate on our lives and families and hobbies than on getting riled up with anything that resembles activism.
Coaching is intense. I have had more than one occasion where the client burst into tears during the first session. Unlike therapy, the emphasis is on achieving short term goals. Most of my service offerings are designed to last 3-6 sessions, although some clients stay on much longer. I think my favorite sessions are the outdoor fitness sessions, where we do the coaching during an hourlong walk or hike. I never agree to work with a client unless they are also seeing a licensed doctor clinician. Confidentiality is key. In the event of a situation where someone’s safety is at risk or where someone expresses suicidal thoughts, I will of course contact emergency services, as well as other members of a client’s care team.
Whatever assorted coaching gurus may promise, my type of coaching certainly won’t make you rich. That’s not why I do it. I don’t know at this point whether it’s going to be a sideline when I return to the tech world, or a permanent, full-time gig. I just know that it’s important for bipolar people to be visible.
This is where the saving lives come in. It’s not really about the coaching, although I believe it’s important and meaningful work. It’s about being visible, and letting people know that bipolar gets better. Coming out is risky, and it has a cost. You may not get asked out on that second date. As a programmer the last thing you want is your supervisor wondering what medications you were taking when you pushed that last commit! But I’ve come to believe that the cost of silence is greater. Silence equals death. Stigma equals death.
Here’s how we can save one million lives over the next generation:
1.) Make stigma against bipolar people unacceptable. End the jokes. Stop using bipolar as shorthand for a personality disorder. Educate yourselves. This shouldn’t be my job, as the person with the disability, but I need to take responsibility first and foremost for my own actions. I am not “out” in every professional or social social situation, but I try to live my life in a way that I can communicate to others, who may be more closeted, that there is hope.
2.) Improve quality and access to mental health care. Bipolar people face special challenges. We encounter more stigma than people with depression or anxiety disorders, and if we are misdiagnosed, the consequences can be serious. But all mental health conditions deserve treatment on a par with physical health. The quality of generic medications has taken an alarming dive. I have experienced these issues myself, and heard alarming reports from others. Legal or regulatory action must be taken to ensure that vulnerable populations do not suffer.
3.) Work for a cure. Amazingly, for a disease that affects millions of Americans and people the world over, we still do not understand the causes of bipolar disorder. It receives only a fraction of the federal funding for diseases with a similar mortality rate. Meanwhile, the pharmaceutical industry shows off its latest advances: a pill with a tracking device to make sure the patient complies and takes their medication. We are solving for the wrong goal here.
You may have noticed that the beginning of this piece promised to tell you how to save one million lives. And you may have noticed that based on the figures above, we’re still 145,000 lives short. There’s a reason for that. The reason is that bipolar people, when we are well and healthy, save lives.
The reason is that bipolar people are our best and our brightest. We are leaders. We are artists, We are entrepreneurs and innovators. We are mystics. We are heroes. We feel deeply, and we act on the courage of our convictions. From Winston Churchill to Kanye West, the names of famous bipolar people read like a roll call. Bipolar people who are able to live out their lives to their fullest potential will design lifesaving vaccines, help mitigate climate change, and create songs and stories that sustain and offer hope for an imperiled planet. We give back every day. We are mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, teachers and mentors, some of the best and most loyal friends you will ever find. We are generous. We go the extra mile. Maybe we are still trying to prove we are “good enough.” Maybe deep down we know that we different, and also blessed. There is a reason we are in this genome.
We have so much to give, and we are irreplaceable.
Tomorrow, a beloved St. John’s neighborhood restaurant, Dub’s St. John’s, will be closing. The decision to close was a matter of economics, the owners say. Even though they appeared busy and popular, they simply could not keep the doors open. I have spoken with the owner, and we hope to run an interview on their new catering business in the near future. But news of this closure got me thinking — or rather, it jumpstarted some thoughts that had been a long time rumbling.
I would like to invite you to a focus group about technology, community, and sustaining independent businesses. Time, location, and date TBA. Snacks and drinks provided.
The purpose of this session is to brainstorm actual features and requirements for a new app, to be developed for launch in January 2019. Format will be based on the IDEO design thinking methodology.
You are welcome to attend, if you are A) over 21; B) a resident of the Portland metro area; C) a user of the Internet and/or social media. We will cap the session at 20 respondents; if we get more than that we may organize additional sessions. We have about 270 person hours earmarked for this project, and we’re hoping to do something memorable and cool.
Please use the site’s contact form to respond if you are interested; let me know what times and dates are good, and also any dietary needs and preferences.