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Dr. Olusimbo Ige the new Commissioner, for the Chicago Department Of Public Health sits at her desk

Dr. Olusimbo Ige, the new commissioner for the Chicago Department Of Public Health.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere

With shortage of mental health workers, Chicago trains the public to try to prevent suicide

The Chicago Department of Public Health is focused on training city workers and people who live in areas with the highest suicide rates.

Editor’s note: This story discusses suicide and self-harm. If you or a loved one are having thoughts of suicide call 9-8-8, the crisis lifeline.

Michele Evans-Brock wants to be a messenger of sorts for one of the most vulnerable groups of people: those who are contemplating taking their own life.

She’s driven by personal experience.

“I have someone in my life who is near and dear to my heart,” Evans-Brock said. “I have some concerns. I don’t want to miss anything, because all too often someone tries to commit suicide — or they do — and family members and friends are like, ‘Oh my God, I didn’t see this coming.’”

But in hindsight, they saw it but didn’t recognize the signs, Evans-Brock continued. That could be someone who is getting their affairs in order, is depressed and hopeless, or suddenly loses interest in their friends. They might have been fired from their job or expelled from school. In other cases, their spouse or child died, or they’re worried about getting punished.

Evans-Brock learned about these clues during a recent morning with about 40 people at the Harold Washington Library in downtown Chicago. They shared personal stories of their own attempts or those of their loved ones, and of people they they lost to suicide. They learned how to broach the delicate topic, how to persuade someone to stay alive, and how to get them help.

Now, they are so-called gatekeepers who can help spot the signs to prevent suicide in their own communities.

“We don’t have enough clinicians to address the need across the city,” said Katherine Calderon, director of mental health operations with the Chicago Department of Public Health.

This is a way to fill in the gaps, Calderon said, since there’s a persistent shortage of mental health providers across the U.S.

Uptick in suicides

The Chicago Department of Public Health is training city workers and residents who live in neighborhoods with the highest suicide rates on how to spot the signs of suicide risk. They include Mount Greenwood and Calumet Heights on the South Side to Norwood Park on the Northwest Side.

Some of these areas are home to high numbers of city workers, including police officers and other frontline workers who are exposed to repeated trauma, said Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Simbo Ige.

The city’s latest prevention effort comes on the heels of the COVID-19 pandemic, where such a drastic shift in our lives left many people feeling isolated. Countless people grieved for loved ones they lost to the virus.

“We want folks to feel like they can do something and equip them to be able to do something to protect their loved ones,” Ige said.

From 2018-22, white people made up the highest rates of Chicago residents who died by suicide, though there was an uptick among seniors 65 and older and Black residents during the pandemic, according to the Chicago public health department.

The city plans to expand access to mental health resources by reopening two city-run mental health centers by the end of the year, Ige said. That’s in addition to five city-run mental health centers now open. Ige also highlighted the vast network of private and non-profit clinics across the city that treat people who are low-income or don’t have a way to pay for medical care, though a study last year showed barriers to receiving care at some of the health centers. Ige also encourages people to call the 9-8-8 crisis hotline.

Advocates including the Collaborative for Community Wellness have documented the lack of mental health providers across the city and the ripple effects on people who need help, such as long wait times to see a provider. They’ve pushed for Chicago to re-open mental health clinics that were closed under former Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Mayor Brandon Johnson campaigned on a pledge to do so. He often talks about his late brother Leon, who Johnson said struggled with addiction.

Janelle Goodwill, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago, studies mental health among Black Americans and has researched the suicide crisis in Chicago. She found that from 2015-2021, suicide rates across the city increased among Black men and women, Latino men and Asian women. In a recent op-ed, she highlighted that four of the six city-run mental health clinics that closed years ago were in Black and Latino neighborhoods.

Goodwill calls the city’s suicide prevention trainings an important step.

“I think that ultimately we have to get to the place where people who are experiencing suicide risk know where to go, have access to get there, and where they can maintain treatment irrespective of insurance status,” Goodwill said. “Cost is one of the primary barriers to mental health treatment.”

The impact of prevention training

Back inside the library, Evans-Brock said she feels empowered by the training. She plans to spread her newfound knowledge to churches and other community places. She said her outgoing personality and her Christian faith compel her to reach out to even strangers.

“I want to make sure that I say the right things so that someone who feels like they’re hopeless or feels like they’re alone that when I walk away … they heard and they received that you’re not alone,” said Evans-Brock, an administrative assistant at the Chicago public health department. “You have everything to live for.”

Here is a schedule of the suicide prevention trainings around Chicago.

Kristen Schorsch covers public health and Cook County government for WBEZ.

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