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Opinion: Suicide prevention starts with open conversations

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Warning: This column includes discussion of suicide and efforts to reduce suicide rates in the Springfield area. If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide or is in emotional distress, please dial or text 988.

There is a mental health paradox in the Ozarks.

In Springfield and its surrounding communities, slightly fewer people self-report that they are experiencing depression (20.8%) than Missourians across the state (21.3%), according to the most recent Ozarks Health Commission Regional Health Assessment. But the same report notes the suicide rate in the Ozarks is 20% higher than the state average.

This disproportionality impacts adult men, the most likely demographic in Missouri to commit suicide.

There is a devastating gap between what we’re self-reporting and what is happening when it comes to mental health in the Ozarks. We need to find ways to let those suffering in silence know that they aren’t a burden or oversharing, and that they’re showing signs of tremendous strength, rather than weakness, by opening up.

I want to invite you to the first in a series of events designed to do so for men in the Springfield area.

On April 27, Burrell Behavioral Health’s Be Well Initiatives team is hosting a free event at Hammons Field that is the first gathering of what we’re calling the Men’s Mental Health League. We believe this event will offer the permission and encouragement to take part in an important conversation in a welcoming and fun environment. And we believe in providing the opportunity for men, who commit suicide at over four times the rate of women, to have support in finding their voice.

We’re honored to have former Major League Baseball player Drew Robinson joining us. Robinson, currently a mental health advocate working for the San Francisco Giants, found his purpose working to end the stigma around mental health after surviving a suicide attempt in April 2020.

In his suicide note, Robinson wrote about how hard and how well he hid his feelings from his family and loved ones, according to a widely-read ESPN story chronicling the life and family relationships he’s worked to rebuild since. He said that in the days leading up to his attempt, he tried to convince himself to talk to someone about what he was going through. Even if it was a surface-level conversation, or a light moment, maybe it would help.

Despite being in therapy at the time, Robinson says it was his inability to be honest or vulnerable that prevented him from getting the support he needed, which inspired his tagline: Strength Isn’t Always Physical.

Now, he’s using his voice to advocate for others to seek help, lean into vulnerability and to not bottle it up or play through it, in baseball terms.

The Men’s Mental Health League is designed to offer opportunities to begin important conversations in the Springfield area.

Thanks to a $300,000, multiyear grant generously provided by the Community Foundation of the Ozarks, I’ll lead the efforts along with the Be Well Community and other Burrell programs (Sources of Strength and the ONE movement) to organize a series of events with the goal of addressing and reducing the suicide rate locally. We’re thrilled to partner with the Springfield Cardinals to host the first at the team’s ballpark.

And we’re grateful Robinson agreed to take part in the event, because we believe his story will resonate with many men in the Springfield area. We also believe the way he will relay his story – conversationally, maybe even a bit messily, as he’s described it – is just as important.

We want to encourage transparent, honest dialogue about suicide and brain health, and we want to pair it with a good time that makes those discussions feel relaxed. There will be coffee and donuts to get us started, followed by some morning warmup stretches led by Louie, the Springfield Cardinals mascot. We’ll have raffles and mental exercises, and we’ll hear from Ethan Bryan, a local author who believes so much in the power of a game of catch that he wrote a book about it. We’ll take time to have a catch, too (bring your glove!) and take batting practice on the field.

Doors open at 8 a.m., and we’ll be at the ballpark until 12:45 p.m. If this sounds like an opportunity you, a loved one or maybe even your whole workforce could benefit from, please sign up.

We’d love to see you there. You can register for the Men’s Mental Health League Event at bit.ly/MMHL2024.

Nia Howard is program and engagement leader for Burrell Behavioral Health’s Be Well Initiatives. She can be reached at nia.howard@burrellcenter.com.

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