During the Mono County Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday, Mono County Director of Behavioral Health Robin Roberts presented on “The Deaths of Despair: Suicide, Unintentional Overdose Deaths, and Prevention Strategies in Mono County”. The point of the presentation was to show some data on Mono County’s drug use and suicide trends, and discuss how the community can help itself.
“It’s not an easy conversation to have. I would assume that some of the people in the room, some of the people listening, and certainly myself, have lost people to suicide and overdose. They’re very complicated deaths to grieve,” said Roberts.
Roberts then quoted Alice Walker, author of “Inner Light at a Time of Darkness”, who said, “We are the ones that we have been waiting for”.
“Bears are survival driven, as are humans,” said Roberts. “Bears are smart, as are humans, Bears, unlike humans, are more individually engaged with survival. Humans need belonging; we are hardwired for belonging. We have to have belonging or we do not survive. We are one of the mammals in the kingdom of mammals that needs other adults in our lives in order to survive. So, what humans have done is create communities in order to enhance our survival. That’s why all of us are here right now- to have community,” said Roberts.
The biggest driver for when people aren’t doing well, according to Roberts, is loneliness: feeling disconnected from our people and disconnected from our community. “This is when we start to suffer,” explained Roberts. “And eventually, it drives us to do harmful things to ourselves.”
Currently, we are all living in a culture that is angry, mean, paranoid and unforgiving.
“We see these communities that continuously are shrinking, and our reaction is to ‘other’ the people that don’t belong,” said Roberts. “So what I’m here to talk about today is how to maintain and build connection, and therefore how to build hope. Because that is the opposite of despair.”
According to Roberts, burnout is something that everyone should be worried about right now, within themselves and their loved ones. “Some of the signs of burnout are that you may feel more angry than you usually do, you might drink more alcohol or use more drugs than you usually do, you might eat less or more than what you normally do, you might not be sleeping super well, and your threshold to manage stress shrinks, shrinks, shrinks, and you feel a sense of despair.”
What exactly is despair?
“Despair looks like feeling lost, like being stuck, and feeling a sense of being trapped. And that is the beginning of the disconnection that can happen for somebody, where they might entertain the idea that the world might be better off without them,” said Roberts.
Of the 7 deaths by suicide in Mono County between 2018-2020, only one of the people was known by Mono County Health Department workers. “This means that of the people who have died by suicide in our county, most didn’t know us and didn’t end up in our crisis system. That means we could be doing more,” said Roberts.
“What we believe in the heart of our work is love, connection, and support; when we ‘other’ people, we put them outside of our line of sight and we cannot help them.”
Over 1,000 Narcan kits have been given out in Mono County, and the department’s goal is to get Narcan to anybody who might be around drug use for any reason, so that, should there ever be a situation where an overdose begins to occur, they can respond and save a person’s life.
“Something about America which is interesting and different from other countries is that we do a lot of talking about other people, and less talking about ourselves. We’ll talk about somebody else’s drug use, somebody else’s alcohol use, somebody else’s despair or depression, but we don’t necessarily talk about our own. And that causes two things: we feel more lonely if we are doing any of these things because it’s even harder to reach out to somebody because of the stigma, and it also creates language that creates barriers. When I first started in this profession, it was unethical to treat people who were not already fully abstinent from drug and alcohol use. So if somebody came in looking for help with drug or alcohol use, they had to be abstinent for 30 days, otherwise we couldn’t see them. That doesn’t make sense intuitively. It’s different now, but that energy is still in the field; we want people to be abstinent, we expect for them to go off and do the thing that’ll make them be abstinent so that we can treat them in the ways that we are set up to treat them,” said Roberts. “When we finally set up harm reduction in California, the main goal has simply been to get people to come back and engage with us. And from there, we can build real relationships with them. And from that relationship, a person feels like they can actually make change. Instead of pushing abstinence on people, we’re asking them: ‘Who are you? What are you doing?’ Because we believe that at the heart of our work is love, connection and support. If we ‘other’ people by deciding that they need to go elsewhere to deal with their addiction, then what we’re doing is putting them somewhere other than our line of sight and their relationship with us.”
Mono County Behavioral Health’s latest initiative has been their “Reaching In” campaign, which they plan to continue to advocate for around the county.
How to “reach in”, according to Roberts, goes as follows:
Listen Well: this doesn’t include giving advice, or starting any sentences with “I”. “People who are struggling know if a listener is being genuine or not,” said Roberts. The intention is that you see the other person so that they don’t feel invisible
Reach out to friends you’re worried about. This is as simple as just saying, “I’m thinking about you, you don’t need to reply to me”.
“One of the things that happens when people are going through this kind of thing is that they start to feel invisible, which leads to more loneliness, less hope, and more despair,” said Roberts. “Just let them know that you see them, without putting any kind of expectations on them to act a certain way.”
“Community connection is the antidote to loneliness and despair. What people really need is for us to say, ‘I’m thinking about you.’ That’s all.”