Public Health Matters Video: Suicide Prevention and Reducing Mental Health Stigma

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Tune into this special episode of “Public Health Matters” to hear Emma White, the founder and president of the nonprofit organization Life Is Worth It, discuss her mental health journey and how she used it to educate adolescents, teenagers, and young adults on mental wellness.

In this special Mental Health Awareness and Suicide Prevention month episode, host Dr. Christina Madison interviews Emma White, the founder and president of the nonprofit organization Life Is Worth It, who shares her struggles with mental health as a teenager, and how she used her experience to educate others and give back to her community. White is also the Statewide Youth Suicide Prevention Coordinator at Nevada’s Department of Education and works under the Office of Suicide Prevention managing Project AWARE, a SAMHSA grant.

Key Topics Discussed

  • Emma White’s personal journey with mental health struggles, and how she educates others and gives back to the community with her work through the state of Nevada and as the founder and president of the Life Is Worth It nonprofit organization.
  • Mental health challenges can affect anyone, regardless of their outward appearance or life circumstances.
  • Upstream prevention and comprehensive wellness education are crucial in preventing suicide, and sharing personal stories can have a profound impact on reducing stigma and encouraging others to seek help.
  • Professional and therapeutic support is essential for managing mental health, but it's important to recognize and utilize various dimensions of wellness for overall health.
  • Having a support system and being able to talk openly about mental health struggles is vital for resilience and recovery.

Christina M. Madison, PharmD, FCCP, AAHIVP: Hello everyone, and welcome to another episode of Public Health Matters, part of Pharmacy Times Pharmacy Focus podcast series. I'm your host, Dr. Christina Madison, and I am so excited to have another incredible guest with me here today...so Emma White is my TEDx sister and interestingly enough, we are recording this episode on our 2 year anniversary—our "TED-iversary"—hitting the TED stage. And this is a really important episode for me personally, because this month is Suicide Prevention and Mental Health Awareness month. And so, Emma's TED Talk, which I'm going to have her go ahead and chat a little bit about [it]—and I will add the link to the show notes as well so you guys can see her TED Talk—has just been incredible, and so inspiring. And I can't wait to dive into some questions.

So Emma, why don't you go ahead and introduce yourself to the audience, and then we'll dive into some questions.

Emma White: Absolutely, thank you so much, I am so excited to chat with you today. And hopefully be able to help people and in whatever capacity they might be struggling with or need support or resources, so I'm really excited. I wear a lot of hats in the suicide prevention and mental health space, so it can get a little bit confusing, sometimes people are like, "Are you here for this today, or are you here for this today?" I know, many people probably relate that to that as well.

But first and foremost, I am the founder and president of The Life Is Worth It Organization, which is a nonprofit whose sole mission is to educate youth and their communities on, what we like to call total life wellness, to help prevent suicide. So essentially, what we do is we provide upstream prevention education on all of the dimensions of our health, because it's really important that we talk about mental health, but we also need all the other dimensions as well to be...as healthy as we can be in every single dimension. So whether that's physical, spiritual, emotional, financial, there's so many different dimensions of wellness, and we all need all of them. So that's what we focus on through various programs, workshops, and curriculum for youth aged 10 to 24 [years].

Then outside of that, I work for the state of Nevada under 2 different departments. So first, I work under the Department of Education as the Statewide Youth Suicide Prevention Coordinator, and I also work under the Office of Suicide Prevention managing a SAMHSA grant called Project AWARE. So those are my main hats that I wear, and then I do professional speaking, I'm an author, and I also have a podcast, so, you know, just all the hats that you could potentially buy, I have bought them and they're sitting in the closet.

Madison: All of the things! And on top of that, were you not also named Woman of the Year, something like that? Wasn't that also an accolade?

White: Yes, I don't know how that happened! I was recently named USA Today's Woman of the Year for Nevada. So, I'm still in shock, and I don't...there's just so many amazing women [who are] doing amazing things, I don't know how I even got that title. But I'm so thankful and blessed to have that title this year.

Madison: Well, one of the things that I wanted to chat with you about is because of the fact that you've done so much work in this space, [I] kind of wanted to just maybe take it back—just a little bit—and talk about sort of how you started in this space and where your passion lies for educating youth around suicide prevention. And "mental wellness" is what I like to say, because it really is about the wellness aspect versus waiting for there to be a problem, and really working on the resiliency side because I feel like that's something that we don't teach a lot of our young people is how to deal with any type of trauma or a challenge, and then that's when they start having issues with mental health.

So if you can maybe give us a little bit of background of how you got started in this work, and where your passion lies, I think the audience would appreciate that, especially if they're thinking about ways that they can help their own communities.

White: Absolutely, so...a lot of people's stories are like mine, in the sense that something happened in their life that they probably weren't expecting, and then it led them on a journey that created who they are today and I'm no different. When I was 15 years old, I started getting bullied at school and harassed on social media, I even started getting stalked by some classmates, and at 15, I just I didn't have the tools that you're talking about. I didn't have those tools to understand how to help myself or how to reach out for help, and this was in 2010. So if we think back to 14 years ago—it's amazing how fast time goes—but...the world just looked vastly different in our social media, in the way that we talk or didn't talk about our mental health, or just health in general. I feel like we didn't talk about health the way that we do now, either. So I just didn't have an understanding, I never learned about depression, or anxiety, or suicide prevention in school...it wasn't something we talked about. And if it was something that we learned about it, it didn't make an impact in my life. Because I didn't it or I didn't know. Now, students have the 988 crisis line on the back of their student cards, we didn't have that, we didn't know what the resources were.

So when I started going through this, I thought that I was the only person in the world that was going through it and struggling and [I wasn't] even able to name what the emotions and feelings I was experiencing. So, for example, when I first started experiencing anxiety, I thought I was having a heart attack because I was having all of these symptoms, but I couldn't name it, and when my emotions changed and I became numb to everything or just overly sad and couldn't get out of that sadness and hopelessness, I didn't realize that it was depression, I just thought something was wrong with me. And so, because I was dealing with all of those things alone, I felt very isolated and dealt with that for 4 months, from September to December of 2010. And ultimately, at the end of that year...I didn't think that there was any way to get out of that, I didn't know how to stop the bullying or to change how I felt about myself and my health. And that led me to thinking that the only way to end that pain was to take my life. And I think it's such an interesting thing, because sometimes we think, "Oh, well, people plan this for a long time, or they research it," or whatever they might say, and I didn't research it, I just inherently knew how I could end my life. And I think that that's something that's really important that we talk about, these thoughts of suicide [are] a lot more normal than I think we talk about in society, because it's sometimes this response to pain. And you might have heard this before, but suicide really isn't about wanting to die, it's about wanting to end pain, and pain comes in so many different forms.

So, on December 23, 2010, I made a plan to end my life. Thankfully, through intervention—the universe, the stars, aligning, whatever you want to call it—my mom just had this gut instinct that something was wrong, and she actually interrupted my attempt, so I'm so thankful I'm here today, I would probably wouldn't be here today without her having that motherly instinct. And so, that set me on a path and a journey that I never thought I would be on. But I'm so glad that I am and incredibly passionate about educating youth on the things that I didn't have growing up. And we have gotten better, like I said, we're talking more and more about mental health, challenges, and resources, but we still have a long way to go, especially when it comes to stigma. So, that is a huge passion of mine and that upstream education—like you said—to provide the tools to people, so before there's a crisis, they know what to do.

Madison: Yeah, well, thank you so much for sharing that story and really pointing out the fact that it's not something that is this huge journey like you talked about, this really was over the span of 4 months for you, and then also, having the awareness and having that family connection that really helped you be able to survive that attempt. Also the fact that, talked about the normalization of people having those thoughts, I think there's a difference between wanting to—like you said—end your life and having those thoughts of pain and really wanting to end pain, versus what I think society makes it seem like suicide is. And [society] talk[s] about it being very selfish, when really it isn't, it has nothing to do with being selfish. It's honestly about not having the correct tools to deal with your emotional stress.

So, with that being said, and with your advocacy work, how long have you had your nonprofit and then how did you end up working for the state?

White: So I'll be honest with you, I didn't really ever think that I would be in a public position sharing my story. I thought that I was going to I thought I was gonna be a fashion designer, like after high school. I totally wanted to go into fashion and design because just like you...I love fashion and I love bright colors, and I love making people feel beautiful and making myself feel beautiful as well.

But yeah, I really didn't know that that's what I wanted to do, I got my degree in business, marketing, and communications. It wasn't until I got my first job out of college working for a hospital, and it was just kind of on a whim, I needed a job, and it ended up being in social services. And then I was thrust into community work and helping patients and their families in some of the hardest, darkest times with their life. And of course, suicide was something that came up with people being in the hospital, whether it was for an attempt or ideation, and so, it started to kind of spark that fire a little bit, [where I thought], "Oh, my gosh, I've been through this, maybe I could help people."

So, originally I started out with...writ[ing] a book, because I love to write, and I'm gonna write a book about my experience. So, I started writing it in 2019, and through that, I learned and realized that there's so much more that I could be doing, and so then the idea of starting a nonprofit to have resources and education for people started with that. We fully planned on launching in 2020 before the pandemic happened. And I always tell people, I'm like, "Nope, we didn't start because of the pandemic, we were already in process." But then it posed the question, do we start this, or do we wait? But we didn't know. I mean, we could have been sitting in it for 10, 15 years, we just really had no idea. So we decided to move forward with it and we officially launched in September of 2020, ao we have been around for 4 years. But our first 2 years were very different than what it is now, all of our programs and workshops were virtual, funding was very limited, because we didn't know...the state of the world was just crumbling. So now, we're really moving into being a more sustainable nonprofit and growing and providing more programs and workshops.

Madison: That's amazing. So how did you end up with your with your current position? And also, I should ask...do you feel like all of your dreams and aspirations are like coming true? Do you feel like this is what you were meant to do? Do you feel like you're just in your zone of genius?

White: I love that, I do. I don't feel like I work even though I work 60 hours a week with all of these jobs. I don't feel like I'm working though, because I love it so much. I mean, yes, there's times where it's work and I can't wait to be off, but I love what I do. I didn't think, again, I didn't know what the world had for me. I didn't ever think I'd work for the state. And honestly, just because I didn't know what could be, I didn't know the possibilities.

So, it's a funny story. I got asked to speak in 2019 before my book was out, before my nonprofit was out, I got asked to speak by a family friend at an event. Unfortunately, they lost their son to suicide and they asked me to speak to help raise money for the 988 crisis line, and it was the first time I had ever spoke in public. I wrote my whole speech out on paper, and I think I probably stood in front of the crowd like this, with the paper right in front of my face. But just so funny, because I'm a professional speaker now...I was just terrified, but I knew I wanted to do it, and I did. And being at that event, my boss with the state—Misty Vaughan Allen, who has been the Suicide Prevention coordinator for 20 years—she was at that event, and she came up to me afterwards and she said, "Thank you so much for sharing your story, I would love for you to come in to some of our trainings. And one day, I feel like I could see you working with us." And it took a few years, but they got some grant funding and they created a position for me with this day. I just feel so incredibly blessed to have that. So yeah, it's just such a wild story that I feel so blessed to have [that].

Madison: It's so interesting that you say that because I tell people all the time, you never know who needs to hear what you have to say, and you never know who's listening. So, I think I've probably told you the story, but I went to the TEDx Reno conference in 2020. So it was such an odd year, right? It was literally the last time I was on a plane before the entire country shut down—actually, the whole world shut down—it was a leap year, and it was February 29, 2020, was when they had the conference...I went and I like flew up the day of, [I] took a crazy early flight from Vegas, and ended up staying until...9 or 10 o'clock at night, and I almost missed my flight home...it was just a wild day. And I remember going to the reception with all the speakers after and I was talking with all the people, and then fast forward to when I applied to do the TEDx Talk in 2022 and when I was talking with Brett, he was like, "Oh, yeah, one of the people that's on our committee was one of the speakers in 2020 and remembers talking to you saying...that you wanted to do a TED Talk." So, you never know who's listening, and you never know who's in your corner. And I think that's a perfect example, you giving that speech, even with your nervousness, and even with you like feeling like, "Oh, what am I doing?" you still made such an impact that this person thought, "Okay, I need to be able to create a position for this woman, because I want her to work with me because her story is so powerful." I think that's just a testament to the fact that you need to just tell the universe what your wants and needs are, because you never know how...you get what you ask for.

White: Yeah, I feel like I live in a dream. It's hard work, right? Talking about suicide is challenging, and there's times where you do need to really take a step back and do some self care and worry about how am I taking care of myself, especially being a survivor of that. But I just feel incredibly lucky and blessed that I get to be a part of somebody else's story and to do something like other people have done for me. So I love that, and you're so right, we just never know.

Madison: Yeah, and something that you had mentioned earlier that I wanted to kind of touch on again, is the fact that you had mentioned how you people to be able to tell their story, and I wanted to kind of chat a little bit about that. Because I do think that...I always say never discuss unresolved trauma, because you never want to get in a situation where you're opening up old wounds, or something that you haven't personally dealt with. So I'm just curious...what are some of the tools or the skills that you talk about in your workshops to allow people to be able to tell their story in a safe space, that is not causing them to relive that trauma again?

White: That's so important. I mean, every single one of us goes through something in our life that changes us, changes the trajectory of our life and maybe it's for the better, maybe it's for the worse, and then we're left to kind of pick up the pieces and deal with it, right? I think in sharing your story—whatever that looks like—we have to make sure that we've addressed what it is, and the biggest piece of that for me was therapy. And I got into therapy right when I was 15...Christmas was 2 days after my suicide experience, so you know, things were closed and it was hard to get appointments. But I think I got in as soon as I possibly could, my parents got me to a counselor and I've been in and out of therapy since I was 15. So it's been a long journey, I don't go every single day but there's been times that I've gone multiple times a week for 6 months, there's times that I just check in, just as we go to the doctor to check in on our other aspects of our health, we have to do that with our brain as well. And so, I'll do that even if everything is aligned, even if the world is amazing and I have no problems or complaints right now. It's good to just talk about that, too. So therapy has been a huge piece of my life and I encourage everybody to find what works for them in that space. That might be counseling, it might be art therapy, or music therapy, but there's got to be a healthy outlet, and it took me 10 years to be able to say out loud to people that weren't my immediate family members and friends, hey, this is what I experienced. So in order to share your story, you have to be able to say it out loud, and a lot of times that starts in therapy.

And then for me, it's just knowing how do I keep myself safe? What are my supports? So I've said 100,000 times probably at this point that I survived suicide, and there are days depending on the time of the month, depending on what's going on in my life, or stress that [I] actually might get choked up and get emotional, even in a training. This happened recently, I said I survived suicide and I got so emotional and teary-eyed, but I've said it 100,000 times before that and didn't have any concerns. So, I need to know what are my supports, who can I go to if things do activate? Especially for me, as I get to my anniversary date every year—which is December 23—it's always an emotional day for me. So, I think those are the things that are really important for people.

And also, 1 of the biggest things is to be able to accept that not everybody's going to understand your story, and that's okay. But to not let that deter sharing your story and being open about it. Because when I first started talking about this—and I still get it, sometimes—I've gotten told that "I don't look like someone who would survive suicide," or "How could somebody like me struggle because in high school, I was a multi-sport varsity athlete," or "I have wonderful parents and a family," and so, I've had those things said to me and it used to really hurt...

Madison: That really is so interesting. What does someone who is a suicide survivor "look like"? I think that's part of why it's so great that you're sharing your story, because I think you're really breaking through some of those stereotypes of what someone...that is "sad" or "depressed" or "anxious" looks like. Just because the outside may look shiny and pretty, [that] doesn't mean that we don't all have challenges on the inside.

Something I don't talk about publicly, but when I was in my late 20s, I had a horrible breakup and sought care with a mental health professional and I was told, "You don't need therapy, you're fine, you're functioning, you're going to work," but I was crying every day, I was miserable. And I was told because of the fact that...I had a doctorate, and I was a professor, and I was going to work every day and a contributing member of society that I somehow didn't need counseling, and that I didn't need mental health support, because I was still functioning. But that was my first engagement with the mental health system, and I was like, "This isn't right!" But that's what they told me. They're like, "Look at you, you look nice, you dress nice, you put yourself together..." But [as a] similar experience, it's like, "Oh, someone that looks like you can't be depressed."

White: I'm so sorry you had that experience, because it's so hard, right? To accept that, I need to maybe go get some help and talk with someone...

Madison: It is a big deal for me to—as a person of color—who has always been told, especially by my parents...I just found this out, in much later years as an adult and now that I'm in my 40s, [my] family has history of mental health challenges, and nobody talked about it. They're like, "Oh, that uncle, or that person...they had some problems, but it's fine." Like, somebody [was] in a sanatorium, like all these things. And [I was just] like, "Maybe that could have been some good intel when I was dealing with my own stuff!" But when you're a high achieving person, and type A personality, and very successful for the most part on the outside...having thoughts of depression, or anxiety, or feeling like you're not good enough, you're just told, "Oh...you'll be fine, just pull yourself up by your bootstraps, and you'll get through it."

...I had a grandparent who was like, "Oh, your people came from slaves, you can't be depressed." But you see what I mean? That's such a stigma within the Black community that mental health challenges are not something that is easily discussed or brought up, and so I think it's fantastic that you're so open about it, and that you're talking about it. And even with me right now [and] saying this publicly, I [have] not chatted about that. Several times in my adult life, I've had issues where I needed to speak to somebody or [I] was dealing with something that I couldn't fix on my own, and that's a hard decision to make to be like, "I need help."

White: Oh, my gosh, thank you so much for sharing that, it is so important to hear that perspective. So I think it's just the more people we can amplify in their voices in their experiences, the better we are going to be as a society and understanding that every single one of us struggles with something at some point, and it's okay to reach out for help. And honestly, if you're not reaching out for help, I'm concerned because every single one of us, none of us are perfect no matter what it is. We need help, we need each other, that's why we're here. Thank you so much for sharing that, and I think it's really important that we are able to share what we've experienced because you never know, you sharing that story, 1 person could change their entire life, you just really never know.

Madison: Yeah, no, absolutely. I mean, I think about, [as an example] Simone Biles, and so many other Black athletes that have come out and talked about their struggles with mental health and why they felt so strongly about coming out and talking about it publicly, because of the fact that it's just something that isn't discussed within the Black community, I think it's super important.

This has been such a great conversation. There's 1 question I typically ask my guests, and I know I didn't prompt you or tell you this in advance, so if you don't want to answer feel free...but I always [ask], what would you tell your younger self and why? ...Now you have all these years of experience, what would be the 1 thing that you would tell your younger self, seeing all of your success and everything that you've been able to accomplish?

White: This is a good question, and I think it's something that I [still] have to tell myself now too, I would go back and tell my younger self this, but I'm constantly reminding myself of this, and that is don't put pressure on yourself to be perfect or to accomplish something by a certain time. Which is really hard, because we have goals, and we have dreams, and it's really important to have those things, but I think as a young child, I was so terrified of not being perfect, or people not liking me, or doing something wrong, or saying something wrong, and I think that it's really good to be conscious. We deserve to be able to be respected and to be admired for who we are and what we bring to the table, but like also [we need to] accept that everything doesn't happen in the way that you want it to, and you have to accept that too. And that's hard, really hard, and I still have to remind myself of that. You're not going to be perfect. Life is about learning, and if you make a mistake, you do something wrong, learn from it...grow, and help somebody else maybe not make that [same] mistake.

I think that's the advice I would give. Don't rush, slow down, don't put that pressure on yourself to be perfect, or think that your worthiness comes from accomplishing something, because it can be really hard. We can sometimes tie our worthiness to what other people say about us, or the accomplishments that we have, but ultimately, I have to love myself regardless of all of the imperfections and the things that I might do or not do, so...long-winded answer, but I think that it's really important.

Madison: No, it's perfect. I always tell people I am on a journey of radical self-love. Just because if you can't love you, then how is anybody else gonna love you, right?

So if people want to find you, or follow your journey, or learn more about your nonprofit, what would be the best way for them to reach out or to follow your journey?

White: So, you can find our website, it's lifeisworthit.org, so there you'll find information about all the programs and workshops we offer as well as email [and] contact information. If you want to find us on social media—or me—you can find @lifeisworthitorg is on all platforms, or myself is @emmamwhite, you can find me on Instagram, LinkedIn, Facebook...but they're all linked together, so if you find 1, you'll probably find all of them in some way.

Madison: Well, thank you so much for your time today, and I'm just so grateful that the 2 of us were able to continue to stay connected over these past 2 years. I know I've really benefited from having my TEDx experience and I know you have as well, and so, I'm hoping that the 2 of us continue to be able to collaborate and to work together and [I'm] really excited to see what's next for you. And then I also wanted to share that 1 of the things that I found out after reconnecting with you is that you actually use part of my TED Talk for your training, which is pretty incredible. So [I] just wanted to say again that I'm incredibly flattered and [I] also wanted to tell the audience [to] dream big, and if you can see it, you can be it, and if you see someone out there that's doing something that you want to do, connect with them, reach out. You never know where it might lead.

White: ...Just a quick plug on that, if you're listening and you want to take the training—and of course, see Dr. Madison in part of that training—you can go to the...Nevada Office of Suicide Prevention...and there is a training link, you'll find all of the trainings. The trainings that we're specifically talking about is called The Safe Messaging on Suicide Training, and we do it virtually and we do it in person, so anybody can sign up, they're free. So, you'll learn about how to talk about suicide in a safe way and then you'll also learn why it's so important that we have diverse messengers in this space as well. You're incredible, the work you're doing is incredible, I just feel blessed to know you. And thank you so much for having me.

Madison: Mutual appreciation and love. All right, well, thank you everyone for joining us today. Again, I'm your host, Dr. Christina Madison, also known as the public health pharmacist. And remember, public health matters.

Emma White can be found on LinkedIn, Instagram (@emmamwhite) and Facebook (Emma White). Her TED Talk can be viewed here.

More information on the nonprofit organization Life Is Worth It can be found on the website and on social media:

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