Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services CEO Kita Curry on overcoming her demons and how being willing to discuss suicide can save a life
It’s getting a little easier for Americans to talk about suicide — and that’s a good thing, says Kita Curry.
When Curry took over as president and CEO of Culver City-based Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services 15 years ago, 200 people was considered a healthy turnout for the nonprofit’s annual Alive & Running 5k Walk/Run suicide prevention awareness fundraiser.
Last Sunday, more than 2,000 people came out for the event in Westchester, an unprecedented turnout that raised a record $260,000 for the cause.
Founded to provide psychiatric support for families during the Great Depression, Didi Hirsch now staffs the suicide prevention crisis line serving the entirety of Southern California — handling an average of 55,000 calls, texts or web chats with people in crisis or their loved ones each year.
Didi Hirsch also operates mental health and substance abuse treatment clinics throughout Los Angeles County, including a children’s mental health services center in Mar Vista. The nonprofit also conducts mobile homeless outreach and sends staff or volunteers to the scenes of suicides to provide immediate family support.
Curry, who holds a Ph.D. in psychology, speaks openly about her previous struggles with depression that once led her to attempt suicide.
“Why I talk about my experience with suicide and my family history is because Didi Hirsch is committed to erasing stigma, and I need to talk that talk and walk that walk,” she says.
— Joe Piasecki
Why do people take their own lives?
They take their lives because they’re in terrible psychological pain that clouds their thoughts enough that they can’t think of any other solution in the moment. About 90% of the time those people have been suffering from mental illness and/or substance abuse. There’s often a precipitant — someone broke up with them or they’ve lost all their money — but that’s not really the cause. The foundation is mental illness, which means that with treatment there’s hope.
What’s the impact of publicity about suicide, such as reports about Robin Williams’ death?
In the week after Robin Williams’ death, calls to our suicide crisis line doubled. We have paid staff and volunteers, and we were calling in volunteers from all shifts so we could pick up all the calls. There were people who were feeling suicidal before Robin Williams took his own life, and many of them called us because his death shook them up — he can’t do it, how can I go on? — but they wanted help and read about the phone number. Not only did the media talk about his death, but they let people know about the crisis line, about resources. That was fantastic, because that’s one of the things the media should do but often forgets. Without resources, it can only increase the feeling that there’s no hope.
How has technology impacted mental health in society?
Social networking can bring people who are lonely together, but it can also bring you to a lot of people who are just as unhappy and feeling as helpless as you are. One positive is if someone types suicide into a search engine, one of the first things to come up is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline phone number.
Have you been personally impacted by suicide?
I’ve lost three family members to suicide. When I was 12, an uncle took his life, then quite a few years later a cousin, and just last year an elderly uncle took his life. With this last uncle I realized the genetic risk for mood disorders was on both sides of my family. Also, I suffer from a mood disorder. I’ve been extremely depressed and contemplated and attempted suicide. Luckily many, many years ago, and I got good help.
Is that what led you to this career?
Probably at some level. I took a class in psychology in college and loved it because I felt it combined poetry and science, and I’m sure my dysfunctional family didn’t help — or did help. … Why I talk about my experience with suicide and my family history is because Didi Hirsch is committed to erasing stigma, and I need to talk that talk and walk that walk.
What are the warning signs of suicide?
A couple of the most dramatic signs are when a person starts talking like “you’d all be better off without me, I think I should kill myself,” or when a person starts giving away favorite possessions or dramatically changes their habits, was timid and quiet but is suddenly angry or explosive.
Are some populations more at risk?
That varies from country to country. In the U.S., older and middle-aged white males are at greatest risk for suicide. An equal number of women attempt, but more men die during attempts. Probably one reason is the use of firearms.
Depression, family history, experiencing abuse — none of these risk factors are so high that you can’t overcome them if you get help. Teenaged Latinas report much higher incidents of thinking about suicide, seriously considering it and attempting it than other teenage girls. There are theories that perhaps it’s because they’re caught in a bind where their family is expecting more traditional behavior from them, yet their peer group is out being much more independent from the family.
What should someone do if they believe a person is suicidal?
If you believe someone is suicidal, you should let them know you worry about them and that you care about them. That’s the most important thing. Some people think that if you ask people whether they feel like killing themselves, you’re going to put the idea in their head. That is not true. Asking someone gives them an opening, if they are that desperate, to talk knowing that they won’t be judged. If you don’t feel comfortable bringing it up you can always call the suicide crisis line and the counselors will help you. Don’t shame them or tell them they’re selfish, because they’re not going to talk to you if you do that. Help them get to a professional. If a young person is reading this, don’t keep it a secret because it’s better to have a friend mad at you than have a friend die because no one knew they needed help.
The number of Didi Hirsch’s suicide prevention crisis line is (877) 727-4747. Find more information online at didihirsch.org.