Several pairs of shoes are seen on tables next to the information desk with a sign that said, “Each pair of shoes displayed represents two lives lost to suicide during 2020.”
These shoes on display at the State Capitol were a part of a suicide prevention display by the Nebraska chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. During the first week of March, tables full of shoes were displayed next to the information desk with a sign that said, “Each pair of shoes displayed represents two lives lost to suicide during 2020.” Photo courtesy of Grace Manley, Nebraska director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Suicide prevention is everyone’s responsibility, says Dr. Dave Miers, Bryan Health’s director of behavioral health.

And that’s why Miers is one of many mental health advocates making a push to bring good public policies about smart mental health practices to the Nebraska Legislature.

During the month of March, the Nebraska chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention presented a suicide prevention display in the Nebraska State Capitol building, as well as hosting a State Capitol Day event to advocate for suicide prevention education and resources.

The foundation’s U.S. chapters do grassroots work to prevent suicide in communities. The foundation unites people affected by suicide to educate the public on risk factors and warning signs of suicide, deliver prevention programs and fundraise for suicide research programs, said Aileen Brady, board member and treasurer of the foundation’s Nebraska chapter.

The display organized by the foundation at the Nebraska State Capitol included tables full of worn shoes, with each pair representing two Nebraska lives lost to suicide in 2020.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death for ages 10 to 44 in Nebraska, according to data provided to the foundation by the CDC. In 2020, the state reported 283 deaths by suicide, according to the data.

“We want to be able to help provide information or education to the state senators about how to best support their constituents and to make good public policy decisions about smart mental health policies in Nebraska,” Brady said. 

During this legislative session, mental health advocates are carefully watching several bills that they think could help prevent suicides in the state.

Brady said the foundation is advocating for additional language in LB585, which requires behavioral health and mental health training for school personnel.

Facilitators at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s REACH program said they also support the bill because it would help them better support students. REACH provides training for members of the UNL community on how to have a conversation with someone who is thinking about suicide.

Emma Farson and Faith Miller, suicide prevention facilitators, said their experiences with REACH have helped them have conversations with friends and peers experiencing suicidal thoughts.

“The more school personnel can promote their commitment to well-being, the more likely it is for a student to confide and trust in them as a resource,” Miller said.

Because students spend most of their days in school, Farson said, teachers and staff need to learn how to notice the signs of someone who may be experiencing suicidal thoughts. 

“Suicide prevention efforts are very important in a school scenario because that is where a lot of students spend the majority of their time,” she said.

The REACH training includes a 90-minute presentation on how to recognize warning signs, engage with empathy, ask directly about suicide, communicate hope – and help suicidal individuals access mental health resources

“There’s a very high statistical chance that you will run into someone experiencing suicidal ideations, and going through the REACH training can help you navigate what to do in that situation,” Miller said.

The foundation is also advocating for additional suicide prevention materials for firearm owners in LB314, according to Brady.

Teaching individuals about the safe use of firearms and how to store them properly is a very important piece of suicide prevention, according to Miers, who helped develop the Nebraska State Suicide Prevention Coalition.

“If you have a firearm safely locked up, then you’re saving a life,” he said.

Miers said some of the biggest challenges facing mental health and suicide prevention efforts in Nebraska are the lack of funding and staffing in some parts of the state. Rural Nebraska doesn’t have as many mental health services as Lincoln and Omaha, according to Miers.

“What we’re seeing across Nebraska and across the country is that those services are becoming less and less, because there’s not a lot of funding to support them,” he said. “And the Legislature is in control of some of that funding.” 

Legislation has an impact on not only suicide prevention but mental health in general, according to Miers. He said LB149, which is focused on providing more inpatient beds for those admitted to the hospital, could help doctors provide the necessary suicide prevention services to those who need them.

There is so much at stake for the future of mental health legislation in Nebraska, Brady said, and that’s why the foundation brought to an attention-grabbing display to the Capitol.

283 lives signage 181x300 - Advocates urge Nebraska public officials to prioritize mental health legislation
As part of a display at the state Capitol, a board displays with hearts the 283 Nebraskans who committed suicide in 2020.  Photo courtesy of Grace Manley, Nebraska director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

“We try to do things that will catch the senators and/or the public’s eye during the legislative session that makes them say ‘I want to stop and learn more about this’ or ‘What the heck are all those shoes about?’” Brady said.

The reactions to the display have been impactful, Brady said. She described a moment last year when a state senator, whose grandchildren were visiting him at the Capitol, thanked her for having the display out. The senator told Brady the display of shoes helped him and his grandchildren have an important conversation about suicide prevention that they otherwise may have never spoken about.

Brady said it was powerful to hear that the display presented an opportunity for this state senator to have a conversation with his family about mental health.

Brady and the foundation continue to advocate for mental health resources and mental health policies in Nebraska.

“We want to be a resource to our communities. We want to be able to provide education,” she said.

The Nebraska chapter of the foundation leads a State Capitol Day event every year during the legislative session. This event brings suicide prevention advocates to local public officials in Nebraska to stress the importance of making suicide prevention a priority.

“We aren’t there asking for any money. We are there to share our own stories and share our own information,” Brady said.

This year’s event took place on March 29, starting the day with a breakfast before walking to the Capitol where the group provided Senators with information on suicide prevention and met with Gov. Jim Pillen at the end of the day. Advocates also shared their own personal stories of how suicide has affected them.

Brady said she wants to see the state adopt suicide prevention efforts that can enact real change.

“We could turn this curve and reduce the number of suicides in our state,” she said.

Emily Diesing is a senior journalism major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.