At Mitchell County Regional Health Center (MCRHC), teal and purple ribbons billow in the brisk fall wind. Starting next week, many more will appear, wrapped around lamp posts and trees throughout the community.
While passerby may not liken the ribbons to much more than an interruption in this season’s gray-toned landscape at first, MCRHC hopes that anyone who spies these splashes of color see them for what they are: tokens of awareness for Suicide Prevention Month.
In this pandemic era, where a simple visit to the grocery store has been labeled as potentially deadly for the elderly population, hospital officials hope that the beacon of light this September shines brighter than ever for those struggling with suicidal thoughts.
“Many [elderly people] are struggling with isolation during these times,” said Traci Grady, Program Director of Senior Life Solutions. Senior Life Solutions is a mental health program that has been serving the 65-and-older population in Mitchell County for about four years, and Grady has been a registered nurse for almost three decades. “Before, if they were struggling with some depression or anxiety, they could call up a family member or a friend and go see someone or have them visit. Now, with COVID-19, they are isolated to their home. Many have groceries brought to them. They don’t get that contact with people that they would typically get even from just going to the grocery store once a week. So a lot of them are struggling with being alone all of the time and not being able to see people that are important to them.”
Senior Life Solutions offers in-person and online mental health services for its patients, but with visits from family members, friends and other loved ones no longer an option for many people in assisted living homes, the ability to cope with day-to-day stresses has become a monumental weight to bear for the aging population, Grady said.
“I think that a lot of times we attribute depression and feelings of sadness to being a normal part of what we go through when we age,” Grady said, “but truly those feelings are not normal, even in aging. Sometimes I think that people tend to accept it as normal when it’s not. What I hope that people understand is that symptoms of depression and anxiety can be managed with medication and therapy, so that seniors can enjoy the latter years of their lives.”
Grady said that the hospital’s goal with placing the ribbons throughout town is to spark a thought about suicide prevention that hopefully turns into a conversation—which will hopefully bring northern Iowa one step closer to a reality with no mental health stigmas.
“I think that sometimes we worry about saying that we have depression,” Grady said. “There is a stigma that goes along with mental health conversations, and we are hoping to change that stigma. We want people to understand that it’s okay to talk about it.”
Symptoms of anxiety and depression often come to someone over 65 when they receive a new physical health diagnosis, have to relocate out of their homes, or lose a loved one—but Grady said that those symptoms can be managed, just like the symptoms of a physical condition, such as heart disease. She hopes that the tendency of some people to avoid mental health services because of the stigmas behind therapy and medication go away in time.
“We are trying to bring awareness to folks about the importance of us, as a community, talking about suicide,” Grady said. “It’s one of those frustrating things that, we know it’s a problem, we know it’s there, but it’s still so hard for people to talk about it.”
Senior Life Solutions plans to show how grateful they are for hospital departments’ help with suicide awareness, and will wear purple masks to represent awareness this month—but Grady said that the conversations can’t stop at the MCRHC door.
“If you’re worried about someone, show them that you care,” said Grady. “Ask them if they’re thinking of hurting themselves. We need to get comfortable having those conversations.”
With suicide statistics expected to rise as a result of hopelessness and isolation feelings during the pandemic, Grady said that concerned family members should look for changes in eating and sleeping patterns, a sudden desire to get life-end affairs in order, sudden crying or an unexpected withdrawal from activities in their loved ones.
“Encourage them to see their doctors,” Grady said. “Make sure they are safe. Make sure there’s nothing in their homes they could hurt themselves with.”
Senior Life Solutions’ programs don’t require a referral; if someone is concerned about their loved one, all they have to do is call Grady and give her a name and number.
“I’ll call them, tell them about what we do and see if they could use our help,” she said. Most insurance companies are compatible with Senior Life Solutions.
All in all, Grady wants the darkness surrounding suicide awareness to be lifted.
“That’s what we are trying to do here. We are trying to help get those conversations started. Because you never know who’s struggling, especially right now,” she said. “So when you see a ribbon around town this month, I hope that comes to your mind.”
Senior Life Solutions: 641-732-6190
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 800-273-8255