Mental health professionals, Milwaukee County leaders aim to address rise in suicides

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MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- Milwaukee County leaders and mental health professionals are working together to address stigmas surrounding mental health while also educating people about resources that are available to help within the community.

According to the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner's Office, 35 deaths by suicide have been reported so far in 2022 with six additional cases awaiting toxicology results. That number is up from March 30, 2021, when 29 deaths by suicide were reported.

"Since 2009, Milwaukee County's suicide rate has seen a steady increase, breaking with national trends where death by suicide is on the decline," said Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley. "We know that suicide is preventable and we all need to understand that even one death by suicide is one too many."

Crowley was joined at Wednesday's Community Health and Healing Series event on March 30, hosted at the Sixteenth Street National Avenue Clinic, by Arnitta Holliman, Director of the Office of Violence Prevention, Dr. Maria Elena Perez, Vice President of Behavioral Health, Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers, Mary Neaubauer, Milwaukee Mental Health Board, and Andrea Nauer Waldschmidt, Behavioral Health Services and Co-chair for Prevent Suicide of Greater Milwaukee.

"There's no doubt about the link between mental health and someone committing suicide," explained Dr. Perez, highlighting the need for education and awareness in communities of color in Milwaukee County. "Mental health is often stigmatized in the Hispanic Latino community. This is why Sixteenth Street opened this clinic, solely dedicated to behavioral health."

The clinic offers services including mental health and substance abuse use assessment, medication evaluation, counseling, peer support services, referrals to outpatient clinics as well as other community programs. It also offers culturally competent programs including a 16-week support group for teens in the Hispanic community and the only bilingual child and adolescent day treatment program in the state of Wisconsin.

"One in five young people report that the pandemic has had a significant negative impact on their mental health," Dr. Perez went on to explain. "We have behavioral health specialists here at Sixteenth Street in nearly 15 Milwaukee area schools who echo this point."

Along with education and awareness, those in attendance are hopeful that their efforts will help address a stigma surrounding mental health and asking for help, especially with men and young people.

"The fact that we have trauma that we've been dealing with our entire lives, we have to, as men of color, open up the doors and opportunities for our people, our families, to deal with the mental health crisis that we're dealing with now in our lives today," said Ray Mendoza, violence interruption supervisor at 414 Life. "It's okay to ask for help. It's okay to show emotion. It's okay to say that you're hurting. It's okay to say that you're not feeling good."

Amaii Collins is a 2020 graduate of Rufus King High School who survived an attempt her senior year. She now advocates for suicide awareness and prevention for Milwaukee County youth.

"The stigma with parents and youth is that things will get better and things will get better with time," Collins said, stressing the importance of adults being available for kids and young adults. "If you don't talk to someone, things don't get better with time. Time becomes suicide and suicide does become death."

Anyone suffering from suicidal thoughts is encouraged to call 414-257-7222 to speak with licensed professionals available in Milwaukee County available 24/7. You can also get more information regarding resources that are available here.

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