Suicide isn’t a “one-size-fits-all”

Story and gallery by KOTRYNA LIEPINYTE

“When I was 13 years old, I tried to commit suicide.”

Illiana Gonzalez Pagan, a member of the U.S. military, struggles to discuss her teen years. She thinks back on the time where she could have been one of the 628 people who commit suicide every year in Utah. Pagan was, however, a part of another scary statistic.

Pagan was part of the 3,280 kids who were taken to the hospital for self-inflicted injuries. “I found myself cutting skin to feel decent,” she says. “And now, I cover those scars with tattoos.” Pagan traces her red-lined tattoos on what used to be her scars. She smiles sadly.

Her red tattoos match the colors of her scars. Pagan’s story is a lucky one. In 2017, over the course of 12 months, the Youth Risk Behavior Survey reported that 9.6% of Utah high school students attempted suicide one or more times. Unfortunately, 5 percent of these students were not so lucky and succeeded in their attempts.

Chelsea Manzanares, a graduate assistant working in the Center for Ethnic Student Affairs (CESA) at the University of Utah, analyzes the Utah struggle via a conversation through email. “Unfortunately, conversations surrounding mental health are still heavily influenced by the presence of stigmas,” she says. “Mental health was not previously understood the way it is now, and these stigmas are the remnants of a history of violence and discrimination. Many people choose not to talk openly about mental may still hold onto these beliefs, which can ultimately become a barrier in seeking care.”

Pagan agrees, reminiscing on a conversation with her mother. “I just remember, as a child, telling my mama that I was really sad. And I remember her saying I have nothing to be sad about and that was that,” Pagan states. The misunderstanding and lack of communication surrounding mental health is what builds the barrier Manzanares discusses.

Especially in West Valley City, where the Hispanic culture is strong. “Culturally,” Pagan begins, “it’s not really OK to be sad. My mama used to compare sadness to a mosquito and always told me that I can just swat it away and forget about it.” Pagan laughs before saying, “Well, that mosquito kept coming back, mama.”

Manzanares also touches on the rising rates of suicide in minority populations. “It’s important to have a conversation on intersectionality, and what that means in a mental health context,” Manzanares begins. “When we are studying these rates, we have to take into account these conditions and interactions that can impact one’s well-being. Grasping this concept helps us better understand what changes (systematically, individually, etc.) need to be made in order to help the mental health status of these communities.”

In an article for The Conversation by Kimya N. Dennis, she writes that African-American, Hispanic and American Indian suicides have historically been “more misclassified than white suicide.”  This means that when deaths are reported, often times, Hispanic deaths are rarely classified as suicides. This inaccurately represents data that shifts societal attitudes toward suicide.

The barrier between cultures also creates an obstacle difficult to overcome. Kim Valeika, a mother, sheds light on the situation. “I grew up hiding things like this from my mom,” she says. “And I am working super hard to make sure my daughters don’t feel the same way. I want them to be able to talk to me about it, openly.”

Manzanares agrees. “Peer support can be so much more than just providing communities with those tools for education and awareness,” she says. “The sense of comfort, acceptance and support that can be found within a community itself is huge in buffering against adverse mental health outcomes.”

All three women said one thing in common: depressive thoughts and suicidal tendencies must be taken seriously in order for there to be any change.

Although mental health is certainly a public health concern in Utah, it remains a taboo subject. The culture in the state is typically conservative, and upholds many stigmas. Relevant mental health resources also tend to be limited and inaccessible to those who are most in need, creating additional barriers. In order for mental health to be at the forefront, more resources need to be invested in educating the public and supporting the validity of this field.

Manzanares’ work in CESA tries hard to build upon this concept. It offers a free Stress Support Group for underrepresented students on campus. The environment is friendly, welcoming, and confidential, in hopes of offering students a safe space to go and open up about inner battles they might have.

Although Utah struggles with the scary suicide statistics, the discussion about mental health has increased. Resources are slowly becoming more and more available as well as tips for recognizing a struggling person. If a person needs help, health.utah.gov reports to listen without judgement and guide them to talk about their past.

Manzanares encourages students to visit CESA, or the University of Utah Health Center.

“Just talk to someone,” Pagan says. “Anyone is better than no one. Just getting it out there allows people to give advice that maybe you never thought of. Just get it out.”