UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital Aims to Open the Conversation and Take the Shame Out of Suicidality

By: Ashley Trentrock

Suicide rates are on the rise and it’s the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, but science tells us that talking openly about suicide does not increase the occurrence of suicide. Just the opposite.

Research shows that acknowledging and talking about suicide may reduce, rather than increase suicidal ideation, and lead to improvements in mental health for those who are struggling and seeking help.

To raise awareness and expand the conversation about suicide, especially during this week — National Suicide Prevention Week — UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital hosted a community viewing of “The S Word” documentary, which examines how suicide attempts and loss have touched the lives of many.

Nearly 100 people attended the screening, which was followed by expert panelists, who encouraged everyone to talk openly about suicide without judgement, shame or discrimination.

One panelist was UPMC certified peer specialist, Jamie Kunning, who is a mentor to patients with mental health conditions. At UPMC Western Psychiatric, she guides group peer or one-on-one support sessions and serves as a resource for treatment teams. She shares her own mental health struggles to build a relationship of mutual respect and understanding — helping patients see that recovery is possible.

When Kunning was 23 years old and in graduate school, she suffered from her first mental health crisis.

“For as long as I can remember, I’ve struggled with perfectionism and social anxiety that bred my overwhelming envy towards others and hatred towards myself,” she said. “The intensity of these afflictions undermined my functioning in virtually all aspects of my life.”

With the mounting pressure of school, and the lack of a support system in that environment, she began to experience significant functional decline. She was struggling with debilitating anxiety, depression and suicidality. One day, in a panic, she fled into her professor’s office which led to the school determining that she needed help and school counselors reaching out to her parents. At home with her parents in Pittsburgh, she started receiving mental health treatment and was diagnosed with major depressive disorder with a feature of psychotic guilt.

“I contemplated suicide every day,” Kunning said. “My main protective factor was the fear of a failed attempt.”

She eventually began an intensive outpatient program where she received group therapy six hours a day, five days a week while living at home. It was in this partial program that something clicked. A therapist said something that deeply resonated with her and along with medication, dancing and the support of her family, Kunning felt the tiniest seedling of hope. That hope grew as she continued with treatment and put her on the path to recovery and wellness.

A crucial part of Kunning’s recovery is music. She writes and sings and plays multiple instruments. She has written many songs about recovery and she’s discovered that her music helps with self-healing and helps others, too. She volunteered to play at hospitals, which eventually led to her becoming a peer specialist.

'Perfect with change' by Jamie Kunning

UPMC Peer Specialist, Jamie Kunning, plays original song ‘Perfect With Change’ on the UPMC Western Psychiatric Patio. Jamie has a history of depression and music is a part of her recovery and wellness.

“For the first time in my life, I can honestly say that I love my job,” Kunning said. “Peers serve such a needed purpose in the mental health field as we are often the people who patients feel most comfortable talking with.”

Suicide is complex and it’s important to understand the impact of this public health issue on families, community and society. The statistics are staggering, with one death by suicide in the U.S. every 12 minutes and 9.3 million adults with suicidal thoughts in the past year, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates.

But recovery is possible, and no one is alone.

“My first mental health crisis almost took my life, but recovery gave me an opportunity to build my life worth living,” Kunning said.

For help: If you live in Allegheny County, resolve Crisis Services are available 24-hours, 365-days-a-year. Pick up the phone and call 1-888-796-8226.

If you or someone you care about is thinking about suicide, call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or call 911 immediately.

To hear more of Kunning’s music, visit: jamiekunning.com.