By Ana Martinez-Ortiz
When Amaii Collins was in high school she didn’t feel OK. She didn’t know what was wrong, nor did she know how to broach the topic.
“I didn’t know what it was like to feel happy about myself,” she said. “Or walk into a building and not feel like everyone was talking about me or in a negative way. I think the biggest thing problem was that I shouldn’t share my emotions.”
After a suicide attempt, Collins made the effort to work toward healing. These days, Collins, 19, works for Running Rebels. She’s using her experience to raise awareness of youth suicide attempts, while encouraging everyone to talk about their emotions.
Collins shared her story during a Community Health & Healing press conference at Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers, 1635 W. National Ave., on Wednesday, March 30.
Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley along with other local leaders addressed the concerning suicide rate in Milwaukee County and discussed the resources available to those in need.
“This is a tough issue for us all to talk about,” Crowley said, noting that since 2009, Milwaukee County’s suicide rate has increased although the nation’s rate has decreased.
In 2019, Milwaukee County had 115 deaths by suicide, in 2020 it was 126 and in 2021 it was 129, Crowley said. He stressed that there’s been a concerning increase this year with a 20% increase in deaths by suicide in January and February compared to this same time last year.
“We know that suicide is preventable,” Crowley said. “We all need to understand that even one death by suicide is one to many. Today we are here to bring awareness to resources in our own backyard.”
One such mental health clinic is the Access Clinic located in Sixteenth Street Community Health Center on National Avenue, which offers behavioral health services, mental health and substance abuse assessment, referrals to outpatient clinics and more. The access clinic provides culturally competent health care services for uninsured residents, Crowley said.
Arnitta Holliman is the director of the Office of Violence Prevention for the City of Milwaukee.
“We understand the seriousness of suicide and the impact it has on individuals and on families,” she said, noting that two-thirds of all suicides are completed by a firearm. “We are centering healing in all of our violence prevention work.”
The clinic’s culturally competent and accessible resources are important, she said. Holliman’s presence at the press conference was a show of support for the clinic and the county’s efforts.
“We are here to let you know that there is hope,” she said. “If you are considering suicide or if you have lost a loved one to suicide, it’s important to know that there is hope and there’s also support.”
Dr. Maria Perez, the vice president of Behavioral Health for Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers, also spoke during the press conference. This is a serious but preventable public health problem, she said.
“There’s no doubt about the link between mental health and someone committing suicide,” Perez said. “And while many factors can increase the risk of suicide, individuals with substance abuse disorders are particularly vulnerable.”
She added that the loss and isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted people’s mental health, especially among young people. Mental health conditions are also rising among the Hispanic and Latinx community, she said, noting that there is a stigma of mental health in the Hispanic and Latinx community.
The clinic increases access to care and prevents anyone from suffering in silence, Perez said. Education and valuable resources along with treatment are available.
Ray Mendoza is a violence interrupter supervisor for 414Life. He talked about the mental health stigma among Black and brown families and noted that change can start with the male figures.
“It’s OK to ask for help, it’s OK to show emotion, it’s OK to say that you’re hurting, it’s OK to say you’re not feeling good, it’s OK to say that you need help,” Mendoza said. “It’s OK. It’s not a problem. You’re not less of a man, you’re not less of an individual. You’re someone who needs help.”
Talking about the problem creates awareness. Mendoza said he’s learned through his own experiences, the value of speaking out and speaking to someone. The hardest part is accepting there’s a problem.
“We need to destigmatize the thought of therapy,” he said. “We have to find the strength within ourselves, as individuals, as men of color, as Latinos and as Black men, we have to find the strength in ourselves to deal with our issues so that we can help our families deal with their issues.”
Mary Neubauer, who serves on the Milwaukee County Mental Health Board, shared that at age 11, she attempted suicide. She survived but kept the attempt a secret until 2011 when she shared it with her dad shortly before his passing.
After being diagnosed with a chronic heart condition in 2017, Neubauer looked at her own mortality. Her journey has led her to realize the value of her life and what she has to offer to herself and to her community.
“Suicide is a devastating situation,” she said. “I’ve lost multiple friends who have died by suicide. As a member of the Milwaukee County Mental Health Board, we have the opportunity to fund programs.”
Andrea Nauer-Waldschmidt is a psychiatric services coordinator for Milwaukee County Behavioral Services and a co-chair of Prevent Suicide of Greater Milwaukee, a coalition that advocates for suicide prevention.
“We know that there are many factors and reasons individuals have suicidal thoughts,” she said. “There is help and there is hope. If someone in your village needs help, first off listen. If someone talks about suicide, take them seriously.”
Nauer-Waldschmidt urged people to educate themselves on available resources and support. Gun locks and medical destroy bags can increase safety, she said.
In addition to the resources available through various clinics and the coalition, Milwaukee County also has a 24/7 crisis hotline, which can be reached at 414-257-7222. To reach the hotline via text, text ‘HELLO’ to 741-741.