Near the end of 2015, there were several obituaries published of local young people, teenagers, who had died of suicide. When investigating their deaths for a story on suicide, the continually climbing suicide rate of middle-age males, after years of prevention programming and services, was startling. In 2016, when VCReporter published, “Suicide, The conversation no one wants to have,” there was talk among suicide prevention experts that bartenders should be involved in the suicide prevention process, since, well, reaching middle-aged people is difficult at best. To train bartenders to help others seemed like progress.
As reported in the VCStar story on July 9, “Ventura County bartenders asked to serve the question, ‘Are you going to kill yourself?’”, a local bartender was tasked with saving a life. She received a note from a middle-age male patron:
“Tell my father I’m sorry for what I’m going to do and thanks to the (Ventura Police Department) for what they’re about to do for me.”
She called the police, who had to subdue the man who had a knife, then was detained. The story goes back to training bartenders to help. In the 2016 story about suicide, however, middle-aged men were not particularly fond of the idea of police hauling them away to an institution on a 72-hour hold:
When speaking with a local suicide prevention expert from Ventura County Behavioral Health if certain methods of prevention could be harmful, the topic was dismissed. In speaking generally with a few middle-aged people, they agreed that such intervention methods would be embarrassing. Locally, a Ventura resident spoke about his middle-aged neighbor dying of a self-inflicted gunshot wound right after being released from a 72-hour mental health facility hold.
But what kind of treatment do suicidal people get?
In December 2018, the VCReporter published, “Reality Check, Making the call for suicidal thoughts, depression,” in which locals shared stories from actual experience:
“After hours of sitting in a cold backroom, I was walked across the street to a different building that was just another cold waiting place.” [Military veteran Jason R.] then explained that his three-day stay primarily consisted of occasional check-ins with staff and watching television.
Another experience shared by Nicole V.:
“I walked into the ER because if I didn’t, I was going to kill myself. I saw an MD once and had once-daily sessions with a psychiatrist. Those sessions consisted of rating my depression on a scale of 1-10 and asking if I want to hurt myself or anyone else.”
The simple fact that these people are still alive after making the call does show that this approach may save lives, but it’s not a surprise that some do not survive.
Worse, in October 2017, a Simi Valley man, Sean F., 48, was placed on an involuntary hold for 72 hours, broke out of the institution, Adventist Health Simi Valley, where he was shot by an officer upon fleeing. In April 2019, after initially pleading innocence, he pled guilty to assaulting the officer who shot him. Ironically, just days before, officials of the California Department of Public Health fined the hospital $45,315 because “failure to provide a safe environment placed the patient in jeopardy.” Still, even with officials admitting culpability, Sean pled guilty to assaulting an officer after escaping an involuntary hold, where someone or multiple people deemed him incapable of staying safe — whether or not homicidal or suicidal remains unclear.
When we initiate contact with law enforcement for suicidal people — people who are despondent and need to be in a safe place where those who truly care can attend to their concerns — too often the services and programs currently available fall short, if not exacerbate the problem. Pure and simple.
It’s hard to say whether or not the man at the local bar would have benefited further from a more understanding bartender, one who didn’t initiate police contact, but in a world where we automatically default first to those who can and do imprison us for help, what is the hope? Understanding fully that this bartender did her best, we need to get a grasp on what we do out of fear for ourselves and others. For those who understand suicidal thoughts, how would you like to be treated?