Houston is stressful, says Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis in an op-ed letter. He’s right – Houstonians brave floods, traffic and oppressive heat for months on end. Accompanying these stressful situations is a rising suicide rate that coincides with the COVID-19 pandemic and tumultuous economic conditions.
What the data says
According to the Houston State of Health, suicide is the leading cause of death in the United States, accounting for more than 33,000 deaths every year.
The suicide rate in Houston’s three-county region has also increased in the last 20% years – from 10.3% in 2001-2004, to 11.2% in 2017-20, per 100,000 residents.
According to Understanding Houston, counties with more unhealthy days, which includes significant stress, depression or emotional distress, are indicative of “higher unemployment, poverty, and undesirable educational and health outcomes” than counties with fewer unhealthy days.
The average number of mentally unhealthy days increased in Texas between 2016 and 2019.
While the national average rose from 3.8 days in 2016 to 4.5 days in 2019, the number in Texas rose from 3.4 days in 2016 to 4.2 days.
Harris County, in particular, reported an average of 3.6 days in 2019, the lowest among the three counties.
On the other hand, Fort Bend and Montgomery counties reported an average of 3.9 and 4.2 days, respectively. These two counties also reported an increase of a full day between 2016 and 2019, while Harris County remained relatively unchanged.
The proportion of adults experiencing frequent mental distress (percentage of adults reporting 14 or more days of poor mental health per month) in Texas increased from 10.6% in 2016 to 12.1% in 2019.
The percentage of those experiencing this condition is higher in Harris County, with 11.2% in 2016 to 13.1% in 2019.
How is the Black community affected?
The Black population in Texas is more likely to report five or more days of poor mental health, compared to their white and Hispanic counterparts, the report says.
“Over the last decade, suicide rates in the United States have increased dramatically among racial and ethnic minorities, and Black Americans in particular,” Dr. Rheeda Walker, professor of psychology, director of the University of Houston’s Culture, Risk and Resilience Lab and author of The Unapologetic Guide to Black Mental Health wrote. “Suicide deaths occur across the lifespan and have increased for Black youth, but the highest rate of death is among Black Americans aged 25-34 years of age.”
What can we do for those who are struggling?
Ellis says there is no single cause of suicide but mental health issues play a vital role in certain cases.
In September – the Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, mental health advocates, health care organizations and professionals, and communities try to spread awareness through education on the warning signs and resources for individuals who are strugglings.
The Harris County precinct one team has a few tips on the ABCs of suicide prevention.
“You don’t need to be a mental health professional to do your part in suicide prevention,” Ellis’ letter says.
A person can spot warning signs, such as physical or emotional pain, mentions of death or suicide, isolation, and changes in moods, among others.
During such times, the AS+K framework can be used, he adds.
According to the letter, the steps include:
– AS+K about suicide,
– Seek more information,
– Safety First by considering ways a person at risk can find immediate support,
– Secure (lock up) Lethal Means (such as guns or medication) to help put time and distance between someone at risk, and
– Know where and how to refer (take action).
For emergencies, 911 or the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline can be viable options.
Resources also include connecting the concerned person with a doctor or counselor and programs like the Holistic Assistance Response Team (HART), which can be reached through the Harris County Public Health emergency line at 713-755-5050, and Mobile Crisis Outreach Teams by calling a 24-hour crisis line at 713-970-7000.