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Ever since I began the Georgia State Bar’s Suicide Prevention Program back in 2012 when I was President of the State Bar of Georgia, I have been advocating for the need for more mental health services provided during an emergency.  For longest time, all U.S. citizens have had available to them for an emergency is to call 911. This is, without question, an extremely valuable service to have when you need help from the police or fire department. But is hasn’t also proven helpful when what you have is really a mental health emergency. There have been numerous examples of incidents here in Atlanta in which, in my opinion, had there been a mental health emergency number available instead of just 911, a life would not have been lost.

The police shooting of Scout Schultz, a Georgia Tech student, is a prime example. Scout was a fourth-year computer engineering major with a minor in biomedical engineering at the time of his death.   Scout was fatally shot September 16, 2017, after approaching officers with a knife and saying, “Shoot me.”  A Georgia Tech officer who had not had mental health training shot Scout, even though Scout was yards away from him and couldn’t possibly hurt the officer with a knife from that distance.  The officers needed mental health training on how to deescalate and handle a mental health crisis someone is going through instead of shooting that person. Had we had a 988 available then, perhaps Scout would still be with us.  The same can be said for the police shooting of Nygil Cullins, who was having a mental health crisis at Fogo de Chao in Buckhead. Rather than handing it as mental health crisis, as it obviously was, the Atlanta Police shot and killed Mr. Cullins.  What is truly sad is that his mother had tried to get emergency transport for her son to a mental health living facility by calling 911 and waited for two hours. She had even called Riverwood Behavioral Health Center ahead of time to make sure they had a bed available, and told 911 dispatchers she would follow police there and fill out the paperwork when they arrived. She said “all you have to do is transport him.” Mr. Cullins waited with his mother for two hours without any help from 911 and, ultimately, left for Fogo de Chao, without mental health intervention. The Atlanta Police, rather than sending a mental health team, sent armed police officer who handled the situation by shooting and killing Mr. Cullins. Another life lost senselessly and one that 988 may have saved.

So I am thrilled that we now have available to us 988 for mental health crises. “If you are willing to turn to someone in your moment of crisis, 988 will be there,” said Xavier Becerra, the secretary of the federal Department of Health and Human Services, at a recent press briefing. “988 won’t be a busy signal, and 988 won’t put you on hold. You will get help.”  I pray this is true.  The primary goal of the new number is to make it easier for people to call for help. Lawmakers and mental health advocates also see this launch as an opportunity to transform the mental health care system and make care easily accessible everywhere in the United States. The Biden administration has invested more than $400 million in beefing up crisis centers and other mental health services to support the 988 system.

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I reaIMG_63761-225x300d with great interest a recent report from the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline that showed a reduction in suicides attributable largely to a song by music artist Logic. That song’s title is “1-800-273-8255,” the hotline number for the suicide prevention lifeline. As a result of this song, number of calls to the lifeline were up while numbers of suicides were down. The correlation to the song was proven by tracking these numbers during three time periods: the first 34 days after the song’s release, Logic’s performance at the 2017 MTV awards and an additional widely promoted performance at the 2018 Grammy Awards.  “1-800-273-8255” is a beautiful song, and if you are not familiar with it, I urge you to take three minutes out now and listen to it.  It starts with a young person saying he doesn’t want to live anymore, that he just wants to die. Then other voices enter the song and essentially talk to the young person and stay with him until the feeling he needs to die by suicide passes. Finally, the young person sings:

I finally wanna be alive, I finally wanna be alive

I don’t wanna die today, I don’t wanna die

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As I write this, many of the headlines in the news are about the so-called “shocking” suicide of alleged child sex trafficker, Jeffrey Epstein, who, allegedly, hanged himself while incarcerated in a Federal New York prison.  What is so shocking? The only thing shocking to me about this event is how the news media and on-lookers, including United States Attorney Bill Barr, think it is shocking for someone, who was known to be suicidal, predictably, takes their life by suicide.  I suppose it is only Mr. Epstein’s wealth and his ties to well-known, rich, influential people, including many politicians, that makes U. S. Attorney Barr suddenly express surprise and concern that incarcerated people are attempting suicide, many successfully, when many of them should have been on suicide watch in a Crisis Stabilization Unit (CSU) or an Acute Care Unit (ACU). We can do without the mock concern on the part of the U.S. Attorney.  This is happening right under his nose in  prisons every day and he only expresses concern when it is a wealthy person who does it?

Jeffrey Epstein’s suicide was foreseeable and predictable. Now it is being reported that he was not on a suicide watch, even though he had previously attempted suicide less than two weeks earlier. The prior suicide attempt placed him in the high-risk category for attempting again. Coupled with the fact that he was in prison for the first time awaiting trial with an indictment list that, if proven, would keep him in prison for the rest of his life (another risk factor for attempting suicide), Mr. Epstein was high risk for suicide attempt and should have been on suicide watch.

Unfortunately, this blatant disregard for the lives of inmates who are either mentally ill or acutely psychotic ( or both) and the risk it creates for them to take their own life, is prevalent in our nation’s jails and prisons.  It is particularly alarming in Georgia prisons.  As recently as just last week, the Macon Telegraph issued the results of its study into prison suicides and announced that Georgia’s rate has reached crisis proportions. Between 2014 and 2016, state records show that 20 state prisoners had taken their own lives. In the nearly three years since, 46 prison deaths were deemed suicides. Georgia’s prison suicide rate — at 35 suicides per 100,000 — is nearly double the national average. Between 2013 and 2014 alone, U.S. state prison suicide rates rose by nearly a third. And Southern states including Georgia, Alabama and Texas saw even larger increases in their rates. Georgia correctional officials believe one in five people incarcerated in state prisons have a documented mental health need.

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Friends:

Many of you know that during my presidency of the State Bar of Georgia in 2012-2013, I  made mental health of attorneys, and their family members, a primary concern. I have taken every opportunity presented to make us more aware of the stresses that attorneys face just in their daily practices and the toll that has on them and their family. We created the “How to Save a Life” Suicide Prevention Program and we know we have been successful in preventing some attorney suicides. But we also know we need to continue to effort. Often, an attorney reaches out to me about a partner in the firm, or a partner reaches out to me about his son, or counselors reach out to me to see how they can help. I am also thankful and proud that Jonathan Ringel, the Editor of The Daily Report, graciously gives me and others space in the newspaper to write about suicide prevention and to keep the conversation going. This is the only way we will eliminate the stigma of mental illness that prevents so many from reaching out for help. And help is easily available, through our Lawyers Assistance Program (800-327-9631) and the State Bar’s Lawyers Living Well Initiative.  The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is  1-800-273-8255.

And so I was honored to be asked to participate in a podcast on the mental health of lawyers by Miles Mediation. Both Editor/Journalist Jonathan Ringel and Stacey Dougan, a lawyer turned therapist, joined in the discussion as moderated by Miles neutral, Bianca Motley Broom, and CMO, Marcie Dickson. I urge you to listen and to share with your family members, friends and colleagues. It will be worth your time. And just by listening, you may save a life.

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