St. Tammany suicide tally brings call for stronger response

by saraj on November 16, 2010

St. Tammany suicide tally brings call for stronger response

Published: Tuesday, November 16, 2010, 10:00 AM

Jeff Adelson, The Times-Picayune

More robust mental health services, better education and a more open understanding of suicide are key to reducing the number of people who take their own lives in St. Tammany Parish, a group of officials said at a forum Monday night. The forum, hosted by the League of Women Voters, came as officials, medical professionals and mental health providers have raised the alarm about the “plague” of suicides in the parish and started work on new initiatives and partnerships aimed at reducing their number.

“I think we’ve already succeeded in some sense in that we’re talking about this,” Sheriff Jack Strain said to an audience of several dozen. “We recognize that this has become a problem.”

There have been 36 suicides in St. Tammany Parish this year, three more than in all of last year. The worst year in the past decade for suicides in the parish was 2007 when 47 people took their own lives.

There also were about 420 suicide attempts this year that were stopped by emergency crews, and the Coroner’s Office wrote 215 orders for parish residents to be put into protective custody, so they didn’t harm themselves or others. Sheriff’s Office Major Tim Lentz said patrolmen now spend more of their time dealing with suicides and other mental health issues than any other type of call, and Chief Merrick Tassin, of St. Tammany’s 4th Fire Protection District, said he has watched as calls to save those who attempt suicide have grown.

“When I started 25 years ago, suicides were rare,” said Tassin, whose district provides fire and ambulance service to the Mandeville area. “Now, it’s a regular occurrence.”

Officials consider white men between the ages of 30 and 50 to be the group most at risk of committing suicide, though Dr. Victoria Witt, a medical psychologist that spoke at Monday night’s forum, said she has seen suicidal patients that range in age from 10 to 75.

Dr. Peter Galvan, the parish coroner, has spearheaded a pair of efforts aimed at reducing the suicide rate in St. Tammany. He and other officials, including Strain and Parish President Kevin Davis, have been working for months as part of a suicide task force looking at ways to prevent suicides and provide proper resources to those in need.

More directly, Galvan also successfully lobbied for funding for a specialized program within the Coroner’s Office that would intervene in situations where there was a risk of suicide or other mental health issues. The program, dubbed the Coroner’s Strategic Initiative Health Information and Intervention Program, was approved by the state Legislature this year and is currently being organized.

The program will provide a team of specialists who can be called on by first-responders or the families of people who are suicidal to intervene and provide a home-based support system. Galvan said the program will also work to gather information to try to detect early warning signs and improve the way the agency responds to those considering killing themselves.

Galvan said he believes most suicides are preceded by “sentinel events,” specific incidents that trigger someone’s decision to take their own life. His point was driven home as he read short summaries of all the suicide cases in the parish this year in an effort to drive home the reality of the issue put a human face on the problem.

Despite the new initiative, several officials at Monday night’s event said that a lack of comprehensive mental health services in the state has harmed efforts to reduce the number of suicides. Melanie Watkins, with the Florida Parishes Mental Health Unit, noted that it can sometimes take up to four weeks to get someone counseling, and Witt added that many mental health professionals left the New Orleans area after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

While increasing the resources available to those contemplating suicide could help reduce the number of completed attempts, James Hartman, of St. Tammany Outreach for the Prevention of Suicide, said a larger “cultural shift” also is necessary.

Comparing suicide to other causes of death that also used to be spoken of in hushed tones, such as cancer or AIDS, Hartman said it’s important that people are open and honest about their experiences with it and other mental health issues. During the forum, Hartman noted that he had struggled with suicidal thoughts in his life and said discussion of these problems can pave the way for others to get the help they need.

“We don’t have to keep these things in the attic anymore,” he said.

Officials at the event urged those considering suicide to call 211, a community resource directory that can put people in touch with a suicide hotline. Those who believe that they know someone contemplating suicide in St. Tammany can call the Coroner’s Office at 985.781.1150 or call 9-1-1.

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