Community Bands Together to Address One-A-Month Suicide Numbers In Dade

In the past 20 months, there have been 20 suicides in Dade County, said Lisa Stephens of Lookout Mountain Community Services, speaking at a specially-called town meeting on suicide prevention at Trenton City Hall on Feb. 12.

Sally Vander Straeten, a member of a panel formed to discuss the suicide problem, gave the statewide numbers: Suicides in Georgia went up from about 900 in 2008 to almost 1300 in 2014, making it the tenth largest cause of the death in the state. Adding in the deaths that were suspected, but not confirmed, as suicides would probably bring it up to number eight, she added. “It’s the only cause of death that in 2013 did not go down,” she said. In a survey put to teens, she said, one in 20 admitted to thinking about taking their own lives and one in 10 to attempting it. Of those who attempted suicide, one in 10 claimed to have tried six or more times, though she specified that some attempts were more “serious” than others.

Young people are in fact at risk for attempting suicide, said Ms. Vander Straeten, but actually the statistics show that older middle-aged people have the highest numbers of dying from it. “It’s important to work with all ages,” she said. Friday’s town meeting was organized as the first step toward forming a suicide prevention coalition in Dade County. Standing-room-only conditions at City Hall attested Dade’s interest in the effort. County educators attending included Superintendent Cherie Swader and Josh Ingle, principal of Dade County High. Local law enforcement was also well represented, including appearances by Dade County Sheriff Ray Cross, Trenton Police Chief Roger Castleberry and Trenton Police Commissioner Sandra Gray. Ms. Vander Straeten said that suicide prevention programs have been slow in coming when compared with, say, cancer cure pushes or anti-heart-disease campaigns, but that researchers in the field can turn to a body of knowledge generated by the United States Air Force’s successful campaign some years ago to bring suicide numbers down in its own ranks. The USAF, said Ms. Vander Straeten, implemented a number of initiatives simultaneously to identify individuals at risk, connect them with help and educate counselors in best practices. “And lo and behold, the numbers went down,” she said.

What then happened was also educational, said Ms. Vander Straeten: When suicide percentages went down, the USAF programs went away, and numbers shot right back up again. “What we know now is that in order to cut down the numbers of suicides, we have to have a number of efforts going on at the same time, and they have to be sustained,” she said—even when it appears that the problem has been licked. Jill May of the Georgia Department of Behavioral Heath, another member of the panel, said mental health services exist in the state but that: “Access to these services is certainly difficult in this county, because it’s isolated.” But she described CIT—crisis intervention training—that is now free and available to law enforcement and other interested groups. Their duties, she said, often pit police officers against mental health issues they are not prepared to deal with. “We don’t give our law enforcement the support that they need,” she said. Ms. Vander Straeten said that anti-suicide coalitions have already been successfully formed in neighboring Floyd and Gordon counties.

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