State suicide prevention plan proposed

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

In Missouri, suicides outnumber homicides. Suicide is the 11th leading cause of death for adults both nationally and statewide, and the third leading cause of death for children in Missouri. The national suicide rate among youth has tripled since 1950, most recently claiming large numbers of young, black urban-dwelling males.

These statistics led to the drafting of the proposed state suicide prevention plan presented at a town hall meeting Tuesday at Southeast Missouri State University. About 25 people representing local government agencies and counseling services attended the meeting, sponsored by the Division of Probation and Parole and the Department of Criminal Justice at Southeast.

The writing group that drafted the plan includes Aurita Prince Caldwell, of the state Department of Health and Senior Services, and Debi Oliver, who is an investigator with the Cape Girardeau Police Department and a counselor with Bootheel Counseling in Sikeston, Mo. Oliver has a special interest in the issue because her son took his life.

Caldwell had more figures: "For every one suicide there are 10 who attempt at a cost of $2,000 to $7,000 per case," she said. "Those are just the ones we know about."

The plan identifies risk factors that drive people to consider taking their lives and defines ways to help prevent suicides. Education about suicide and mental health and reducing the stigma attached to both are top priorities. Oliver said people should say that a person has completed suicide rather than committed suicide.

"Mentally ill people are committed," she said. "Criminals commit a crime. We need to start saying completed. It gets a more favorable response. Survivors of suicide appreciate that."

Critical of hospitals

Juvenile officer Randy Rhodes' office sees at least 10 young people a month who are either suicidal or who have injured themselves severely -- a symptom of attempted suicide. He criticized local hospitals for turning away juveniles who need psychological treatment, sending them instead to out-of-town hospitals. The hospitals will accept juveniles in the emergency room, he said, but will not admit them if they need mental health treatment.

"We get cases that are extremely complicated," Rhodes said. "We don't know if we're dealing with a mental health issue or a diabetic issue. We don't have the tools to know that stuff. I would rather have a doctor eyeballing the kids who come into detention."

Hospitals do their best, say Tara Huffman of Saint Francis Medical Center and Sally Owen of Southeast Missouri Hospital. Saint Francis has to refer suicidal individuals to other facilities, Huffman said, because it does not have a psychiatric unit. Owen said Southeast cannot admit juveniles because its psychiatric ward is for adults only. Both said suicidal patients who come through the emergency room are evaluated by a physician and a social worker before being sent to another facility for treatment.

After the state legislature receives the final draft of the plan, the Department of Health and Senior Services and the Department of Mental Health, as well as others who work with suicide prevention, will push for its approval and for the establishment of a suicide commission to monitor the plan. The commission will be required to report to the legislature every other year.

The writing group felt that a commission was needed, Caldwell said. "It will encourage people to come together and talk about how they're going to handle suicide in the community," she said.

Already Probation and Parole are on board, and the Community Counseling Center has agreed to hold the next meeting, which will reach out to include clergy, schools and senior citizens.

Some issues still need to be worked out, but Caldwell and Oliver both think a statewide commission is workable and that efforts at the local level will be successful.

"Today is the first step," Oliver said.

Oliver said local suicide support groups are available by referral through the counseling offices. A national service is set up to link people to local assistance by calling toll free (800) SUICIDE.

335-6611, extension 160

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