Using hope to steer away from danger

Suicide, child abuse, substance use and mental illness are among the issues being rebranded in hopes of saving lives

Words matter. And experts trying to help families flourish say that’s especially clear when it comes to addressing societal challenges like suicide, child abuse, substance use disorders and mental illness.

So they’re changing how they talk about those issues with the goal of infusing hope into what has at times felt like a language of despair.

For many years, child abuse prevention awareness efforts have been highlighted nationwide during April. Now some states, including Utah, have rebranded April as Strengthening Families Month. Child abuse and neglect are less likely when families are strong and have the resources, knowledge and support to deal with challenges, experts said. All families benefit from that.

Campaigns to stop suicide may bear titles like “Live On” or “A Life Worth Living.” Postpartum depression is now increasingly referred to as maternal mental health. “Help Me Grow” focuses on child development and setting kids up to flourish from the earliest ages.

While using different words could seem to be a superficial alteration, experts told the Deseret News the shift in mindset that comes with new wording could broaden the reach of each message and change — or even save — lives.

The goal is to reduce stigma, encourage folks to get help and let people know they can get through their crisis, said Allison Foust, suicide prevention program administrator for Utah’s Department of Human Services. “It’s really about hope, healing and recovery,” she said.

One state among many

Many advocacy groups and programs across the nation have been looking at how they’ve long approached preventing crisis. Montana’s doing it. So’s Wisconsin. Prevent Child Abuse America and Growing Together and others are investing in targeted upstream messaging. Changes in Utah over the last couple of years demonstrate how broad the appeal of updating language has become.

“We’re asking how can we strengthen families and encourage parents to seek out assistance and services so that call to the Division of Child and Family Services never has to happen,” said Sarah Welliver, the division’s public information officer. She points out that nationwide, a slew of groups on Twitter use the hashtag #thrivingfamilies.

Too often, communities, families and agencies deal with the aftermath of something really bad. So advocates for better outcomes want to enlist communities to support families by teaching them protective strategies and offering resources that prevent those tragedies.

“One of the main messages we are trying to move away from is you only need help when you hit rock bottom. We know that you can do things for mental health before you get to that point. Things that are preventive, including changing the language,” said Brook Dorff, a Utah Department of Health spokesperson on mental health and substance abuse.

Destigmatizing needing help makes it more likely people will seek the help they need, said Welliver. A perhaps-unexpected positive that emerged from the pandemic, she noted, is that lots of people realized that anyone can experience mental health concerns.

Several experts told the Deseret News that people tend to focus on where they see themselves in the moment. So lots of families might not view child abuse prevention as relevant to them. But Strengthening Families certainly is and could provide resources and education to keep child abuse from ever being personally relevant because families develop skills to keep problems from escalating or they learn where and when to get help. The same is true for mental health, substance use disorders and suicide, among other issues.

Experts on how families thrive hope that as the public engages more, people will see that no community or family is immune to difficult challenges, so it’s crucial to recognize when someone needs help and find ways to provide support.

A stronger upstream message empowers people to act. “Something led this family to this point. This puts the responsibility and opportunity really on the community to support their loved ones,” said Welliver.

“We’re trying to put a stronger message out that there’s something you can do,” she said.

Fortifying protective factors

The media's tendency to focus on numbers — like the number of deaths by suicide — is not especially helpful for someone feeling vulnerable who doesn’t see a way forward, Foust and Dorff agree. Conveying that help is available and life is worth living, that there’s a way to get through a crisis, has far greater impact on those numbers than just counting them, they added.

Prevention is sometimes subtle and doesn’t seem directly tied to the potential of a future crisis, said Foust. “We can do things now that could prevent a loved one from getting to that point. And that is bonding — you know, having family dinners, whatever that looks like for your family, but just checking in with one another on a regular basis,” she said.

The Live On campaign is the first of its kind in Utah. Most previous suicide prevention campaigns have spread the word to call the crisis line, which is important. But she said Live On tackles what it would take to help people never reach that point.

The buy-in has been great, Foust said, with state funds, but also private donations from organizations like The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Intermountain Healthcare.

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Lisa Miller, professor and founder of the Spirituality and Mind-Body Institute at Columbia University, says human nature offers some protection, too. She believes society spends a lot of time addressing suicide and racism and extremism and other harms only when they’ve reached a crisis point, but that the biggest efforts should start way upstream.

For her, the solution to many of the drastic societal issues is nurturing what she calls an innate spirituality. During a recent Awakened Campus Summit her center hosted, Chaplain Maj. Gen. Thomas Solhjem, chief of chaplains of the U.S. Army, talked about how the concept of “a life worth living” changed his trajectory and helped him turn a troubled life around.

Miller talks a lot about spirituality as a crisis prevention tool, but she’s not talking directly about religion, though the two often connect. She said every human is born with a “transcendent connection to a higher power.”

Most people feed their natural spirituality with religion, while others sustain and nurture it with environmental factors like nature or art. Moments of despair, she said, are an invitation to grow, not to give up. “Depression is not downtime. It’s not lost time,” said Miller, author of “The Awakened Brain; The New Science of Spirituality and Our Quest for an Inspired Life.” “We are hard-wired through suffering to awaken to the deeper spiritual nature of life. Hope is written into that nature,” she said.

Gathering resources

The idea of infusing hope through messaging and of connecting people to something bigger than themselves have much in common. They introduce prevention way ahead of where a problem occurs. And they pair seamlessly with the goals of preventing child abuse, suicide, substance abuse and other devastating personal challenges.

Federal and state governments offer information in the form of online resources like Utah’s Strengthening Families Toolkit. Utah agencies have collaborated on a 211 Strengthening Families web page, based on the “Protective Factors Framework” of key strengths: parental resilience, social connections, knowledge of parenting and child development, concrete supports and the social and emotional competence of children. Those all help families navigate difficult situations as they occur and before pressure builds.

People with substance abuse and mental health challenges usually internalize blame, feeling like they’re in some way just bad people, that it’s a character trait instead of something that happens that can be helped, said Dorff. The truth is they can be helped, but they may be less willing to accept help if they feel like a hopeless mess or that it’s their fault.

“I have a good job, a good family, lots of support. Why do I feel this way? It’s a character trait they take on instead of knowing it’s common and they are experiencing a difficult time right now. Well, you can live a very full life despite having a substance use disorder. Help is available. Avoid getting to the point where Allison’s group has to come in,” said Dorff.

In a press release announcing some of her division’s resources, the director of Utah’s Division of Child and Family Services pointed out that the safety and well-being of children depend on the safety and well-being of the adults in their lives.

“This is why I love the focus on family strengthening in the month of April,” said Diane Moore. “When parents thrive in our communities and have what they need to live healthy, productive, economically stable lives — child safety is almost always concurrently achieved. We want to do more in Utah than just prevent abuse and neglect.”

Positive wording says issues are common. They’re preventable or treatable. Hope abounds.

The professionals who deal with those issues say it’s the kind of talk that can save a life.