It’s a simple question, but when it comes to someone’s mental health, Nicholas Orlando called it “The best thing anyone can do.”
“The trick is to create a space that someone feels safe in,” said Orlando, a licensed professional counselor practicing in Waynesburg. “It goes further if they know there is someone who loves them and cares about them.”
September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, and for Orlando, an important part of raising awareness is making sure people know that having conversations about mental health is important and necessary.
“You don’t ignore it and you don’t avoid the topic… One of the biggest misconceptions about mental health is that if you talk about mental health, people are going to get sick, that you’re going to play in a stigma, and it’s not true,” Orlando said. “We need to talk about it.”
Wherever you live, chances are your community has resources if you are depressed or having suicidal thoughts, or know someone else who might be struggling.
In Washington County, the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, part of the larger Department of Human Services, can connect residents to a range of resources.
“We provide mental health services to children and adults. Ranging from home services, residential placements, outpatient therapy, medication management. Most importantly, we have a 24/7 crisis line,” said Jennifer Scott, the department’s administrator.
Earlier this year, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline changed from an 800 number to a simpler three-digit number – 988.
Since the pandemic began in 2020, however, Scott says the need for mental health services has increased sharply in Washington County.
“We’ve seen a pretty big increase, to the point where we’re starting to have wait lists for services,” Scott said. “The numbers have gotten so high that our current services are unable to meet them.”
Part of the reason was isolation, according to Scott.
“It led to some people being depressed because they didn’t have social interactions. Sometimes those things that can be identified in schools are missed,” Scott said.
Orlando stressed that it’s not necessarily true that the pandemic has created mental health issues, but rather has made people more aware of those issues.
“A lot more people needed to be with themselves,” Orlando said. “Many of us have had mental health issues that have not been addressed due to our busy level. Some stressors were considered normal. When they return to a “normal” life after the shutdown, what happened is that they tasted that stress again and were like, “Oh, this is not normal.”
Scott also said the transition to relative normality has been difficult for children and adults.
“There are people who are legitimately afraid of re-entering the labor market. It definitely impacted all ages,” Scott said.
Fayette County has seen a similar increase in the number of people seeking mental health services. Regina Donkers, behavioral health program specialist for the county, said part of the problem is filling needed positions and losing people to retirement or career changes.
Donkers pointed out that part of the increase is because people are more comfortable discussing their mental health.
“It’s not just professionals who talk about mental health. Our young people, they’re really on the ball talking about their mental health and realizing, “I can’t handle this,” Donkers said.
Brean Fuller, the director of the Greene County Mental Health Program, said they have also seen an increase in the number of people seeking help, and although they have also been affected by labor shortages- work, it was not up to the level of the other communities.
“If you’re talking specifically about Greene County, we were able to manage,” Fuller said.
Orlando’s Waynesburg practice is Orlando Counseling Services. It is located on East High Street as part of a therapy co-operative called Therapeutic Healing Services, which is home to four other practices.
According to Orlando, how we talk about mental health and our willingness to do so greatly affects those who may need help.
Someone trying to express their mental health issues may do so in subtle ways, such as with a comment like, “I wish something good was happening in my life.”
Orlando says sometimes those windows to intervene can be small.
“That could be the thing. We miss the opportunity to say, ‘Do you want to talk about it?’ said Orlando. “So they are well placed. They “returned to normal”. Now, this person does not verbalize it. They won’t tell. When someone commits suicide, it may be out of the blue. That’s why we want to capture those moments and say, “I’m here for you, and I’m ready to listen to this.” I agree to talk about something difficult. I love you.'”
What isn’t helpful, Orlando added, is the “suck” attitude.
“I think it’s generational. I think there’s also cultural factors to it… This person finally came to someone, and they hear, ‘Suck it in.'” It’s a attitude and a belief about how we deal with things that need to stop,” Orlando said.
Even with that cultural barrier, Orlando praised Greene County’s work with mental health services and the willingness of community leaders to speak out about these issues.
Fuller said that in her five years working for the county, she has made tackling stigma a priority and believes they have made progress.
“Usually when someone thinks of a mental illness, we want to change their thoughts to think about their own mental well-being…If they see signs of depression in themselves or anxiety, there are services that can help her with that.. There’s no shame in that,” Fuller said.
Part of their effort was to form Team Hope, which was started when Fuller was approached by three parents who had lost children to suicide and felt something needed to be done in Greene County.
Fuller said Team Hope has been running for a few months and they meet monthly.
“In the short time we’ve been together, we’ve done a number of outreach events in our local school districts, at (Waynesburg) college, at local sporting events. We’ve put up signs and banners throughout the community,” Fuller said.
One of the parents who helped start Team Hope was Anita Mullen, a pre-K teacher in the Jefferson Morgan school district. At 2 p.m. on September 17, there will be a “March for Mullen” in Mather, in honor of Mullen’s son.
“She really went through something that is a tragic event for any family and really brought so much hope and love to the community,” Fuller said.
Washington County is also hosting upcoming suicide awareness events. On October 2, the Walk to End Suicide will take place at Wild Things Park. According to Scott, about 200 walkers have already signed up. This is the first year of the event.
“The money is reinvested in mental health services and education,” Scott said.
According to Donkers, a vigil will be held at 6 p.m. Sept. 22 outside the Fayette County Courthouse. The vigil will not only be for suicide victims, but for their surviving families and those who have attempted suicide.
“When there is a death of one person by suicide, that death affects at least six other people,” Donkers said. “It doesn’t just affect that person or that family. There are others it affects throughout the community.
In addition to the national hotline, Washington, Greene, and Fayette County have local numbers residents can call in a crisis.
In Washington, that number is 724-225-3584. There is also a text hotline at 724-715-3584. A line specifically for veterans is available at 1-800-273-8255.
Greene residents can call 1-800-417-9460 or text #63288. The local number in Fayette is 724-437-1003.