Bill on suicide prevention awaits decision by Holden

Friday, May 23, 2003

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- The pain and anguish for state Rep. Todd Smith and his family have been slow to fade. In February 2002, Smith's brother Mark took his own life shortly before his 35th birthday.

Smith still wonders if something -- anything -- could have been done to prevent the tragedy. The Republican lawmaker from Sedalia said there may soon be a way to spare other families from facing something similar.

Legislation pending before Gov. Bob Holden would formalize a state suicide prevention plan. Holden has not said whether he would sign the bill.

"My family has been touched personally by this. I experienced firsthand the pain and anguish and the questioning," Smith said. "If I can prevent some other family or friends from going through the pain my family still goes through, it would certainly be worthwhile."

Missouri has been working on a statewide suicide prevention plan since 1999 and has had an informal policy in place the last couple of years.

But state officials say the existing plan is outdated, lacks focus and is in need of legislative-backed legitimacy.

Among other things, the legislation would promote employee assistance and workplace programs on depression, psychiatric illness and substance abuse disorders. It would also require several state departments to coordinate efforts on suicide prevention, and that a suicide prevention plan be submitted to the Legislature by Dec 31, 2004.

Besides Missouri, 16 states have suicide prevention plans.

Missouri's current plan was drafted primarily by the state Department of Mental Health and Department of Health and Senior Services, although other agencies have been involved.

About 700 suicides occur each year in Missouri, said Joe Parks, medical director for the state health department. He expressed hope that the legislation would help lower that number.

"This is a chance to update the draft plans, which need to be updated, and it also broadens the involvement of state agencies," Parks said. "It strengthens the whole initiative."

The issue has been one of national significance for some time. In Washington state, a formal suicide prevention plan was enacted in the mid-1990s.

Davis Hayden, the director of the mental health program at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash., said that in many states, the suicide rate is higher than the homicide rate.

"I am glad that Missouri is moving forward in this area," Hayden said. "Most states are just working on it. They all want it in some way or form. Missouri is definitely heading in the right direction."

In the state of Washington, Hayden said, work was just completed on a database of youth suicide attempts and deaths by ZIP code, which is intended to plot the effectiveness of suicide prevention plans.

Hayden said it is still too early to know if statewide plans will have dramatic effects on suicide rates.

Lawmaker Smith said having a coordinated state effort could make a difference for those with problems and for families who are trying to deal with a suicidal relative.

"Hopefully, we will do something that will create a program that will help people do identification upfront and do something so people will know where to turn," Smith said.

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Suicide prevention bill is SB618.

On the Net:

Missouri Legislature: http://www.moga.state.mo.us

State suicide plans: http://www.ac.wwu.edu/ 7/8hayden/spsp/

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