March is the World Health Organization’s suicide awareness month.
If you’ve noticed an uptick in the number of people walking dogs this month it might have something to do with the Walk 50 miles with Your Dog in March event hosted via Facebook by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), a national nonprofit dedicated to supporting survivors and those affected by suicide. AFSP does this through supporting research, raising awareness for mental health, and advocating for public policy around prevention and support.
I joined the national walk along with thousands of other dog owners around the nation and a few other locals. I walk my dog every day, and so, I figured, “hey, I might as well walk for a cause that’s worthy.” Walking alone does wonders for mental health, but with a dog, the benefits are even brighter. But, I had no idea the depth of the cyber community I had entered into and how diverse and widespread this epidemic is.
To embrace the effort to educate myself more about this public health issue, I attended a suicide prevention training hosted by the Methow Valley School District family outreach committee on March 6. After all, I have a teenager and another on the way, it felt like the responsible thing to do since suicide is the number two cause of death among you people aged 10-34. In one hour, I learned so much! Thanks, MVSD for bringing this program to our community, I hope more people get educated on this issue, because the basic tools provided in the program can save lives.
The training taught some important prevention tools. First, in terms of talking with teens or loved ones about suicide, I learned the fact that mentioning the word suicide is proven to not “plant” or “put the idea in someone’s head.” In fact, speaking directly is a prevention tool and is proven to help people talk about their feelings or thoughts around taking their life, which is a critical first step towards recovery. Other prevention factors include removing firearms and unused medications from homes, because guns account for over 50% of all attempts and medical overdoses are the second method of attempts.
The online walking group has opened my eyes to the prevalence and diversity of people around the nation who struggle daily with mental health. It’s also shown me that suicide affects all kinds of people. Mental health doesn’t discriminate; white middle-aged men account for the highest rates of suicide. Among youth, girls are more at risk and LGBTQ individuals. Most suicides are related to more than one factor, but underlying mental health condition like depression, bipolar, anxiety and substance use are strongly linked to suicide.
Connection is key. Science supports the psychological and physical benefit of pets to ease stress, lowering cortisol levels in the blood. During times of crisis, connection with pets provides positive mental health benefits as evidenced by service animals for treating people with PTSD and the rise of therapy dogs. That’s why the dog walking event makes so much sense. Dogs are known for their loyal companionship and there’s a magical mood-lifting effect that happens while watching your happy dog on a walk.
If you or someone you care about is struggling with mental health or considering suicide, call or text 988, the national suicide prevention hotline. Someone will answer.