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Tom Watkins: We must end mental health stigma to stop suicide

The news hit me hard.

There was another apparent suicide and my heart sank. I did not know Travis Weber well; in fact, I believe I only met him once briefly. That did not stop the tears from flowing when I heard the news.

Travis Weber

Travis Weber served as former Gov. Rick Snyder’s legal counsel and was appointed by him to serve on the Northern Michigan University Board of Trustees. He recently joined the law firm of Warner, Norcross and Judd in Detroit. This week, he died of an apparent suicide.

He was a good man and deserved a full life of love and joy.

I don’t know why Travis apparently chose to take his own life. Perhaps we will never know. We do know that far too many in our state and nation take their own life. And it is so tragic and sad.

Suicide is godawful. It snuffs out precious life and leaves a wake of agony for those left behind.

I know the pain all too well, as both my older and younger brothers took their own lives.

There is even a tinge of shame and stigma associated with admitting this ugly family secret. This stigma, and yes, I have to admit it is there — hurts, as well.

Stigma kills

Stigma is a major barrier in getting people the mental health care and support they need.

I have spent years working in the behavioral health field, serving as Michigan’s state mental health director and president and CEO of the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority.

From former Lt. Gov. Brian Calley’s office

I know better. But I admit the fear, embarrassment, shame and judgment still clings to me like cheap cigar smoke in a darkened bar. We need to defeat this stigma to help give people a chance at life.

Suicide kills 38,000 Americans each year. That is about 104 deaths by suicide a day, or one every 12 to 13 minutes. In 2014, suicide was the 10th leading cause of all death in the U.S., the 2nd for youths aged 15-24, and 4th for adults aged 18-65.

Mental illness impacts ever ZIP code — it is an equal opportunity disease. Mental illness does not impact “those” people. It is not simply a statistic to recite. It impacts our mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, sons and daughters.

I have witnessed, through my brothers’ struggles, the joys when they were ready for help and the system was there to help them. I have also felt the pain as their disease prevented them from availing themselves to help — or worse yet, when a bureaucratic, underfunded system let them down. We can and must do better.

Gretchen Whitmer speaks after a Democrat Unity Rally at the Westin Book Cadillac Hotel August 8, 2018 in Detroit, Michigan | Bill Pugliano, Getty Images

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer will present her first budget proposal next month.

I hope she will pause and ask what she can do in the area of mental health. I believe we need to better help educate people that help is available, provide resources to augment the anemic budgets and minimal state support for quality public community mental health services, and help eradicate stigma that prevents  people from seeking help.

Help is available

If you are contemplating suicide because you feel today is the worse day of your life, please pause. Across Michigan, your local public community mental health agencies are there to help. No matter what problems you are dealing with, people are there to give you reasons to keep living.

By calling the National Suicide Prevention Network at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), you’ll be connected to a skilled, trained counselor at a crisis center in your area — anytime, 24/7.

Knowing where to turn and who to call can save lives. Save these numbers and share them with your circle of friends and colleagues so that everyone knows where to turn if they or someone they love are so desperate, distraught or ill that they are contemplating taking their own life.

Reach out to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI-MI), the largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to improving the lives of persons living with serious mental illness and their families.

Help support Kevin’s Song, a charitable organization dedicated to generating public awareness about the causes of suicide, its prevalence in our society and possible preventive measures.

As a community, we are the ingredients that can help save lives.

Rest in peace, Travis Weber. My heart aches for you and all that love you.


Tom Watkins

Tom Watkins was deputy chief of staff to Gov. Jim Blanchard, director of Department of Mental Health and State Superintendent of Schools. He has also been president and CEO of the Economic Council of Palm Beach County, Florida and is considered an expert on China.