One in 20 adults in the Fox Valley has made a suicide plan in the last year and one in 10 has at least thought about ending their life, according to newly released survey results.
Those results from the Fox Cities Mind Your Wellness Survey come as suicide ranks in the top 10 causes of death in Wisconsin. A preview of the survey was released Sept. 8, during Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, to address the compounding mental health crises among the state’s most vulnerable groups.
The survey was conducted by NEW Mental Health Connection, which was created by the Medical College of Wisconsin and coordinated with United Way Fox Cities. The survey is focused on Calumet, Outagamie and Winnebago counties, with the goal of fully representing disparity groups, which include seniors, veterans, people who are LGBTQ, Black, Indigenous and other people of color, and those in low-income homes.
The survey results will inform Connection’s strategies for Project Zeroa program dedicated to suicide prevention in the Fox Valley.
Building relationships in the community between these disparity groups is an important piece of the puzzle, says Kathy Flores, anti-violence program director with Diverse and Resilient, an Appleton advocacy group that participated in the survey.
“One of the things that can be very frustrating for oppressed groups in community (work) is when people don’t communicate with us and just extract our data,” Flores said at the Connection meeting on Sept. 8, while expressing gratitude to the organizations behind the Mind Your Wellness survey who have worked behind the scenes with Diverse and Resilient.
The survey opened May 2021 and closed this past June and was available in English, Spanish and Hmong. Connection collected 1,259 responses from residents in 11 demographics representative of tri-county population data.
Survey specialists noted that the project began when the world was in a state of flux during the pandemic, which may have affected the way people responded to the survey.
Residents open about mental health, but they’re not seeing specialists
A majority of people in the Fox Valley say they’re comfortable talking about their mental health issues, but fewer than half said they seek professional care. That indicates a need for more peer-based services in the community, said Sara Kohlbeck, director of the Medical College of Wisconsin’s suicide prevention unit.
“What this is telling us is that people are comfortable talking about these issues, but they might be seeking more informal support from friends, family members, things of that nature,” Kohlbeck said.
Informal support may also include turning to the internet in states of harshness, but survey results show that people exposed to four hours or more of non-work-related screen time per day are twice as likely to report symptoms of anxiety compared with those who spend less time on computers, televisions and cellphones.
Survey results show that Fox Valley residents who identified as LGBTQ sleep fewer hours than other respondents, and half fail to get adequate rest at night. That’s significant because sleep is a lifestyle factor than can affect a person’s mental wellbeing and executive functions.
A lack of sleep could be one contributor to another survey result: The LGBTQ respondents in the Fox Valley were about twice as likely to experience symptoms of anxiety and 11 times more likely to have attempted suicide at least once in the last year.
Flores made it clear that it wasn’t a person’s identity that made them more anxious or suicidal. Instead, multiple environmental factors are to blame, which range from housing instability to hate violence.
“Hate violence … social exclusion, social isolation, oppression by the systems that aren’t designed by us, for us or with us, are all part of the problem,” Flores said.
Generally speaking, Kohlbeck expressed surprise that more than half of people surveyed reported symptoms of anxiety and 43% said they’ve experienced symptoms of depression, including both sadness and anger.
In respondents who have experienced suicidal ideation, Kohlbeck said they were 33 times more likely to have symptoms of depression and 39 times more likely to have symptoms of anxiety compared with people who have not contemplated suicide.
“We’re really seeing the impact of anxiety on suicidal ideation in folks in the community,” Kohlbeck said. “Thinking about folks who are experiencing anxiety, folks who are experiencing depression, how can we work suicide prevention and efforts of intervention into our resources and into the services we’re providing?”
One key takeaway is the importance of social connections that are known to be protective in mental wellness. The pandemic added to the degree in which isolation increases anxiety and depression.
The amount of isolation a Fox Valley resident experienced in the last year increases their chances of reporting symptoms of depression and anxiety by 17 times and 49 times, respectively.
Beth Clay, executive director of NEW Mental Health Connection, said the survey was conducted to fill a gap in available data on local adult behavioral health.
“We really wanted the strategies in Project Zero to flow from our local tri-county data on adults rather than looking at national data and extrapolating that to use locally,” Clay said. “Our community really needs to speak for itself so our strategy can flow from those raw results.”
Natalie Eilbert covers mental health issues for USA TODAY NETWORK-CENTRAL WISCONSIN. She welcomes story tips and feedback. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or view her Twitter profile at @natalie_eilbert. If you or someone you know is dealing with suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or text “Hopeline” to the National Crisis Text Line at 741-741.