Kern County Mental Health Director Bill Walker told Kern County supervisors on Tuesday that his office is stepping up its efforts to combat suicide after the high-profile deaths of Bakersfield City Councilman Jeff Tkac and community activist Jai Bornstein.

“Our community has been rocked in the last two weeks by two suicides,” he said.

Quoting a suicide prevention training system he uses, Walker said, “It’s never been more real to people that, ‘the face of suicide is you and me.’”

Walker said that this is one of those moments when the community is reminded of the terrible cost of suicide and how it can strike any family and any community of people.

“There were just under 140 known suicides in Kern County in 2016, which is approximately 15-16 per 100,000, which is higher than the national average.”

This is a chance, Walker said, to raise public awareness and try to break down the walls of stigma and misunderstanding that make the day-in, day-out work of fighting suicide so difficult.

“Suicide is probably one of the most stigmatized conditions someone can suffer with — with the depression and then the actions that hurt so many people, not only the person who takes their (own) life, but all of those who are close to that person,” he said.

It’s critical for people to understand the signs of the internal trauma that warn of the possibility of suicide, he said: Depression, low energy, inability to sleep, the use of drugs and alcohol to cope, and the sense of hopelessness, helplessness and the radical changes in behavior people can exhibit.

"We will be bringing forward, and we have been doing research on something called the zero suicide initiative,” Walker told supervisors.

The initiative will increase the Mental Health Department’s efforts to connect with community groups, doctors and the general public to make mental health a part of everyday conversations in the same way that physical health is a part of daily life.

Doctors need to ask about a patient’s mental health, for example, and other organizations need to be engaged as well, Walker said.

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