'Un-Mute' for a Life-Changing Conversation


EDITOR'S NOTE: This piece was written by Sheila Savannah, with Prevention Institute on behalf of World Suicide Prevention Day.

This year’s theme for World Suicide Prevention Day, “Take a Minute, Change a Life,” asked us to pause, reach out, and listen to people who are struggling. As we consider this theme throughout the month of September,  we must recognize that suicide prevention relies on addressing the underlying sources of despair in our communities, including social isolation.

This understanding is at the core of the Movember Foundation’s U.S. initiative, Making Connections for Mental Health and Wellbeing Among Men and Boys, which is coordinated by Prevention Institute. Sixteen communities across the U.S. are creating conditions to improve men’s and boys’ mental wellbeing. They’re building social connections; developing safe and welcoming spaces for men and boys to gather and build community; addressing disparities in housing, education, and employment that chip away at wellbeing; and helping whole communities to learn to do the same.

We know that men die by suicide 3.5 times more often than women, and that many of the populations that are the focus of the Making Connections work, including military members, veterans, and American Indians, are disproportionately affected by suicide. These elevated risks have prompted several Making Connections communities to emphasize suicide prevention in their work.

When the Southern Plains Tribal Health Board began considering strategies to promote mental health and wellbeing among American Indian men and boys in Oklahoma, suicide prevention quickly emerged as a key focus area. Nationally, suicide is the second leading cause of death for American Indian males between 10 and 14 years old, and in the Southern Plains region, suicide rates for American Indian males are two to five times higher than for their female peers, said Amber Martinez, coordinator for the Tribal Health Board’s Empowering American Indian Boys and Men to a Healthy Mind, Body, and Spirit project. “It wasn’t hard to see the need to prioritize suicide prevention in our communities and identify interventions and programs that strengthened resiliency and empowered our boys and men,” she said in a recent podcast conversation hosted by Prevention Institute.

The Tribal Health Board is partnering with Hope Squad, which has developed a prevention model that engages and trains youth to recognize and report warning signs of suicide among their peers. In addition, Hope Squad focuses on shaping more positive environments at school and in the community by providing young people with leadership roles and shifting norms around talking about suicide.

Hope Squad founder Dr. Greg Hudnall noted in the podcast conversation that it’s critical to break the “wall of silence” around suicide. “Seven or eight out of ten young people who take their lives will tell a friend, but that friend will never tell an adult,” he said. “Young people hide it; they’re embarrassed… What the Hope Squad does is it starts promoting that we all struggle at different times, and that when we do struggle, it's OK to reach out and get help.”

This seemingly simple step of reaching out can be daunting for some men, who may have been socialized to tough it out, or go it alone. Making Connections communities are tapping into the power of connection among men to change these long-held norms. This was evident during a recent Prevention Institute visit to see the work of Resilience Grows Here (RGH), an initiative focused on the mental health and wellbeing of veterans and military members in a rural area of Connecticut. Tom Shannon, a Vietnam veteran who volunteers with RGH, said the high rates of death by suicide among veterans prompted him to get involved. According to the Veterans Administration, in 2014, the risk for suicide was a shocking 21 percent higher among U.S. veterans than for civilians.

“Today, veterans’ suicide rates are much too high,” Shannon said. “I will do anything that I can to reduce that rate… I find that in my experience, it’s just about being there physically in somebody’s presence to listen to them.”  The work of Resilience Grows Here, based in Farmington, Connecticut, includes training for community members in the Question, Persuade, Refer (QPR) approach that lays out simple steps to help prevent suicide.

The Movember Foundation, a global funder in men’s health initiatives, which includes mental health and suicide prevention among its priorities, has found that many men are, in fact, ready to talk about their struggles, but when they do, the people around them are not always equipped to listen effectively.

To help bridge this gap, Movember has developed a four-step guide referred to as ALEC, so that when men want to talk, their go-to people are able to listen: 1) Ask, 2) Listen, 3) Encourage Action, and 4) Check In. It’s essential that we take the time to reach out and ask folks how they are doing — and truly listen to what they are experiencing. If they are struggling, we need to encourage them to connect to others who can help alleviate their frustrations, anxiety, or depression. It’s vitally important for us to help them stay connected by checking in frequently. These simple steps can save lives.

Emphasizing the need to encourage conversation with men and boys, Movember has launched the “Un-mute – Ask him” campaign, which includes videos disguised as how-to instructions that instead reveal the importance of asking and listening. They invite us to take the extra step and “un-mute the audio” so we can truly hear our family members, friends, and neighbors when they need help.

Making Connections for Mental Health and Wellbeing Among Men and Boys is a national initiative to transform community conditions that influence the mental wellbeing of males. The initial focus of this work is high-need communities, including men and boys of color and veterans. Sixteen communities across the U.S. are developing and activating strategies to enhance their sociocultural, physical/built, and economic and educational environments. The Movember Foundation is funding the work; Prevention Institute is providing coordination, training, and technical assistance; and a team from the University of South Florida is evaluating progress and outcomes.

Sheila Savannah is a director with Prevention Institute, a national non-profit that aligns strategy, policy and networks of organizations to build health, foster equity and prevent injury in areas where people live, work, learn and play. She provides leadership on health equity, mental health and violence prevention.