A few weeks ago, Palo Alto resident Victor Ojakian received an unexpected letter in the mail.
It was from one of his son's former classmates. The boys had gone to secondary school together and played some of the same sports, he said, but they weren't best friends or even especially close companions. Yet the man still wrote to Ojakian more than a decade after his son's death to say he had never forgotten his friend.
"He still thinks about my son," Ojakian said. "He essentially said it's never left him."
When someone dies from suicide, Ojakian explained, countless others are affected by the loss. Family, friends, neighbors, classmates, co-workers and church members all share in the sorrow; the pain ripples throughout the community and remains for years to come.
That grief casts a wide net in the United States. Recent data from the National Center for Health Statistics shows that suicide has ranked as the 10th leading cause of death for all ages each year since 2008. But some lawmakers in Congress are now taking steps that they hope will save lives.
The Energy and Commerce Committee passed three bills on July 15 related to suicide prevention, including The Campaign to Prevent Suicide Act, which would launch a national media campaign to raise awareness; the Suicide Prevention Lifeline Improvement Act of 2019, which would enhance the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline; and the Suicide Prevention Act, which would establish two grant programs to help hospitals or health centers identify and support at-risk patients.
If signed into law, each bill would provide a notable amount of funding. The lawmakers allotted $10 million each year from fiscal years 2020 through 2024 for the media campaign, and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline — a nationwide network of more than 160 centers that run crisis hotlines - would see its funding increased to $50 million each year from 2020 to 2022. Meanwhile, $30 million would be doled out each year from 2021 to 2025 to establish the grant programs.
Rep. Anna Eshoo of Palo Alto, who chairs the ECC's Health Subcommittee where the bills originated, told San Jose Spotlight that suicide is a serious crisis that must be addressed. The Democratic congresswoman said legislative action is even more urgently needed due to COVID-19.
"The state of mental health for many has only worsened since the beginning of the pandemic," she said. "A recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that half of all adults report that their mental health has been negatively impacted due to the coronavirus."
Eshoo added that her own district is no exception to the suicide epidemic.
"Silicon Valley has had an alarmingly high rate of suicide for years," she said.
There were 719 total recorded suicides in Santa Clara County from 2014 to 2018, according to data from Santa Clara County Behavioral Health Services. There were 148 suicides in 2018, or a rate of 7.63 per 100,000 individuals. That number was slightly higher than figures from 2016 and 2017, which recorded 134 and 133 suicides, respectively.
Since the start of the pandemic, Santa Clara County has seen a rise in calls to a suicide prevention hotline — a trend that is mirrored nationally. Until four months ago, San Jose did not even have a suicide prevention policy.
The national Disaster Distress Helpline saw an uptick of 900 percent more calls in May compared to May 2019. Santa Clara County received 215 calls in May 2020 compared to 157 in February, before the shelter-in-place orders were enacted.
Keeping with national trends, the data showed that Santa Clara County's men have been disproportionately affected. Men died from suicide at a rate of 11.91 per 100,000 individuals in 2018. For females, that figure was 3.25.
Melissa Mayes, executive director for the Teen Therapy Center of Silicon Valley, said she and her clinical team appreciate any effort from lawmakers to shine a light on suicide and the underlying mental health conditions that lead to it. Her team applauded the extra funding for crisis hotlines.
"Crisis lines are a great support to clients because it allows for anonymity and fosters vulnerability. Many times clients are able to process the best by verbalizing away their worries; sometimes journaling, exercising and talking to a pet just doesn't suffice," they wrote. "You really need a human who you know can't tell any of your friends what is going on."
Officials at the center added that funneling some money from the bills into the nation's education system and creating more school-based mental health programs would also be beneficial for at-risk youth.
Ojakian said he welcomes any legislative efforts to prevent suicide. In addition to being a suicide loss survivor, he also serves as the co-president for the Board of Directors at NAMI Santa Clara County, which supports and advocates for those with mental disorders.
But Ojakian also noted one area of concern.
One of the potential new programs would authorize the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to award grants to state, local and tribal health departments. In return, grant recipients must provide their suicide data to the organization for research purposes.
Ojakian said he hoped the CDC will be straightforward when it comes to sharing their findings with the public. Guns are a major means by which people in the U.S. take their lives, he explained, but he fears the CDC would face political pressure to downplay any mention of firearms due to the intense national debate over gun control.
Ojakian, however, said he supports the bills and that change will come in increments.
"We have a hill to climb because there's been decades of negativity around mental health," Ojakian said. "But it's changing — these bills are indicative of that."
Any person who is feeling depressed, troubled or suicidal can call 1-800-784-2433 to speak with a crisis counselor. People in Santa Clara County can call 1-855-278-4204. Spanish speakers can call 1-888-628-9454.
People can reach trained counselors at Crisis Text Line by texting 741741.
Additional resources can be found here.
This article was originally published July 26 on San Jose Spotlight.