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Suicide in the COVID-19 World

Listen in as Group Chief Executive Officer, Jaime Vinck, MC, LPC, NCC discusses suicide in the COVID-19 world.
Suicide in the COVID-19 World
Jaime Vinck, MC, LPC, NCC
Successfully Operating Acadia Healthcare’s Flagship behavioral health facility, Jaime Vinck, MC, LPC, NCC, is the second female CEO at internationally-renowned Sierra Tucson and serves as the Group CEO for Sierra Tucson, Sierra by the Sea, and Sunrise Ranch. Jaime speaks nationally and internationally on trending topics including: Suicide, Addiction and Depression, provider resilience, and collaborative care. In addition, as an industry advocate, she serves on the Board of Directors of the National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers and 10,000 Beds.

Scott Webb: Today, we are talking about suicide in the COVID-19 era. What are the risk factors, warning signs and resources? Let's learn more with Jamie W. Vinck, Chief Executive Officer of the Sierra Tucson Group of Treatment Facilities. This is Health Talk from Sierra Tucson. I'm Scott Webb. Jamie, thanks so much for being on today. Really appreciate your time. Could you describe for us what's happening in the US and why suicide is such a health problem?

Jamie Vinck: Absolutely. Well, first of all, thank you very much for allowing me to come on the show and talk about something that's very near and dear to my heart, both personally and professionally. In the United States, and this is even pre-COVID, were in the midst of not only an opioid crisis, but a suicide epidemic, and in our country, approximately 47,000 Americans die by suicide annually. And the interesting thing is that this spans all age groups and all demographics. And the interesting thing too is that every suicide leaves behind at least 130 people who report that they knew the person who died and between four and six who loved them. So that really creates about a million people a year in the US who are directly impacted by the suicide of someone close to them. Those are the folks that I think of as the walking wounded. Ones that have lost a loved one and their lives are left never to be the same again.

And so not only do we grieve the people that died by suicide, but they're survivors. And it's interesting. At Sierra Tucson we have created a program designed for these folks. It's called voice of legacy. And we did that because we were seeing so many people coming into our mood and trauma program because a loved one had died by suicide. And so our program was actually created by these two brilliant young therapists whose own fathers had died by suicide when they were young girls. And so they were extremely passionate about this topic as well. And so if we think about what was going on in the country pre-COVID-19 and then the pandemic hits, and in an attempt to reduce the virus spread, which I totally support and understand, we're telling people to isolate, we're telling people to stay home, and the things that we are doing, it's quite possible that they are creating a greater incidence of suicidal ideation and suicide attempts. Those may be the unintended consequences.

Host: Well I'm just taking all this in and sounds like an amazing program and you're so right. Like I've been thinking about that during this time that you know, the physical distancing, the social distancing, and the unintended consequences of that on people who at this moment in time, could really use that connection with people. Really interesting. So let's talk about the risk factors for suicide. What are the risk factors?

Jamie Vinck: Well, risk factors are often confused with warning signs and it's very important that we understand the difference. So risk factors indicate that someone is more likely to consider attempt or die by suicide, but it indicates nothing about the immediate risk. So if we think about the most commonly recognized risk factors, they are prior suicide attempts, a family history of suicide, underlying trauma, a mood disorder, meaning depression, anxiety, those kinds of things and substance use disorder. So those are the risk factors in someone's life that we need to be aware of. So other factors that we need to think about, and this is where it gets very critical in this time is a job loss, a relationship loss, lack of social support, isolation or aggressive tendencies. And so if we look at the social isolation, as well as the economic losses that people have experienced, the risk factors are exacerbated at this point in time.

Host: Definitely. And thinking about that, that the difference between, you know, risk and warning signs that's really interesting. So what behaviors can help us identify those that are at risk? I know you mentioned some of them or at least what should we be looking for as warning signs? Cause when you hear about people committing suicide, whether those people are famous or not, you know, people often reflect then back on that person and things they said or did and things we felt we should have. What are those exactly Jamie. Those are the risks or the warning signs, things that we should have noticed and maybe we could have done something about.

Jamie Vinck: So the warning sign, the first that I always ask people to consider is if a loved one, if a friend, a coworker, if they start talking about wanting to die and if you listen for it, that's something that if someone is extremely depressed, it does come up. The other thing that is important to look for is a hopelessness. If they feel like their life is over and no reason to live. And even in the most important is if one talks about being a burden, the feeling of being a burden to others is a huge warning sign. If we think about not only those that I just mentioned, but other things like all of a sudden someone has just stepped out of their life, they isolate, they're not engaged with others and their families, they're giving some of their things away, actually coming to an orderly shutdown of their life. Then those are things to look for as well as warning signs. And if we see that, immediately seek help.

Host: Interesting. So I think I've got it. The difference between, you know, those at risk and the warning signs for the rest of us, and this is a little bit maybe off topic, but I think you can probably speak to this. You know, we're talking about COVID-19 and we're talking about isolation and people are speaking out through social media, Facebook or otherwise. How should we take some of the things that we're reading? Some of the things that people are saying is that just COVID stuff, you know, or should we be more concerned do you think?

Jamie Vinck: I always err on the side of caution and if someone is expressing things that we view as warning signs, if they're huge shifts in someone's behavior that we know, then it's very important that we act upon it, that we spring into action

Host: And probably at the very least reach out to those people and not do it electronically like that. Maybe pick up the phone, you know, or zoom with those people and see their faces. Right?

Jamie Vinck: Well, that's exactly right, and by springing into action, I don't mean calling 911, but being that human touch for them, because we are going to talk about protective factors in a bit, but that connection, that feeling is so those somebody cares and that life is worth living because someone cares enough to reach out and speak to you live. That can change someone's life, that can flip the script enough to change someone's darkness in that moment. And so you're exactly right. If we see something on social media, pick up the phone and say, Hey, how are you? And you know what? It's totally fine to say, are you thinking about hurting yourself to be that blunt. That's totally okay.

Host: Well, I can appreciate what you're saying, and you know, so we all have friends and family, some who are more positive than others. And so it's always trying to kind of read between the lines a little bit. Like is this just a normal course of negativity for this person? Or is this something more? And you're so right, like let's pick up the phone. Let's reach out to those people. It really could make the difference. Yeah. We all have friends and family and we want to be supportive and we don't want to overreact or overdo something as you say, like we don't need to call 911 immediately, but let's talk about those protective factors. What are they?

Jamie Vinck: So protective factors are the characteristics that make it less likely that someone will consider attempt or die by suicide. They're exactly the opposite of your risk factors. And so the more protective factors have, the less your risk of dying by suicide. So the ones that we think about is in the most common protective factors are that feeling of connectedness, belonging to something, being able to solve a problem, a spiritual belief, strong family relationships, strong peer supports, hobbies, and having access to treatment if so needed. And if we look at all those protective factors, those are things that we can create in our families. We can create them in our friend groups, we can create them at work. So that is the hopeful thing about this is we can all create protective factors for others and for ourselves. If you're concerned about a loved one, please, please limit their access to lethal weapons. It's very important that if someone is showing signs of depression. If you're concerned about someone's substance use disorder, please be sure that they don't have any weapons in their home that could truly save their life.

Host: Can you speak to the role that trauma plays in suicide risk and explain the importance of trauma informed care.

Jamie Vinck: We call trauma the fire in the basement and trauma is oftentimes the darkness somebody carries from their past that they don't show others. And the more trauma that someone has in their lifetime, the greater their risk of suicide. And that's because throughout their lives they develop what we call unhealthy coping mechanisms and those are things that help them get through the day and those kinds of things. The most typical thing that we think of when we think of an unhealthy coping mechanism is substance use disorder. So drinking, drugging, depression, perhaps acting out in a sexual way or other sorts of unhealthy gambling, gaming, those kinds of things that they do in excess. Those are oftentimes what people do to deal with their trauma. And so until we effectively work with the trauma that someone carries from their past, then those coping mechanisms will continue to be pulled in when times get tough, for instance, in a time like COVID-19.

So it's very important in a trauma informed environment and trauma informed care. What that means is that it's an environment where we have communication, collaboration as well as transparency. And so a trauma informed environment is the absolute opposite of a shaming negative environment. It's a place of kindness and support where people feel safe. And so that's what we strive to do every day at Sierra Tucson is to create that safe environment. And again, these are the kinds of things that we can all do in our families, in our friend group, in our workplace, to create a something that is really trauma informed. And what that means is, you know, watch the kinds of things that you say to people. Use language that's accepting and not shaming and creating that connection where people feel safe enough to be vulnerable.

Host: That's really fascinating and so awesome that that's what you're focusing on. Just one of the many things you're focusing on at Sierra Tucson as we begin to wrap up here, Jamie, what resources are available for those with suicidal ideation and for those who want to help a loved one?

Jamie Vinck: So it's interesting, the government just came out with, it's the Initiative of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention in response to COVID-19 so that is a wonderful tool. And again, it's the national response to COVID-19 the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention. And there's a lot of great resources in there, but a number to call is 1-800-273-TALK or 8255, that's a number where resources are available and guidance is available for treatment and also for family members. Also, if someone is in imminent danger, all counties have a crisis hotline to call, so Google your crisis hotline in your community and if you have concerns about a loved one about a friend, have that on hand. I have it on my voicemail in case an old, a former client calls me and they're in crisis. They know if they're in immediate danger. Call this hotline.

Host: That's really amazing. Jamie, you know you mentioned your personal and professional interests earlier and I can really hear the passion in your voice. Thanks so much. That's Jamie W. Vinck, Chief executive officer of the Sierra Tucson group of treatment facilities. For more information, visit And if you found this podcast helpful, please share it on your social channels and check out the full podcast library for topics of interest to you. This is Health Talk from Sierra Tucson. Thanks for listening.