Saving lives through suicide prevention efforts

When Jennifer Stuber lost her husband, Matt Adler, to suicide in 2011, she was left with two small children, a mountain of grief and a lot of questions.

“I went on a quest to understand as much as I could,” she said. “I realized there were a lot of things that weren’t happening that could save lives. The issue of suicide really needed some public attention and resources directed to prevention.”

Stuber now runs Forefront, an organization based at the University of Washington School of Social Work focused on suicide prevention and awareness.

Today (Feb. 16) is Suicide Prevention Education Day, and Stuber, along with Forefront staff and volunteers, partnered with King County’s Crisis Clinic and the Department of Veterans Affairs for a week’s worth of events in Olympia.

Fifteen volunteers, all of whom lost a loved one to suicide, set up the Suicide-Safer Homes Memorial on the Capitol lawn. Volunteers have been available all week to inform others of its purpose, Forefront’s mission and their policy aims. The memorial comprises 1,129 mock tombstones, one for every suicide death in Washington in 2015. The colors represent the means used, with red, the most common color, to indicate suicide by firearm, and yellow ribbons to denote a veteran suicide, of which there were 225 in 2015.

Suicide-Safer Homes Memorial on Capitol Lawn (photo courtesy of Forefront)

On Monday, Forefront hosted suicide prevention training for legislators and Gov. Jay Inslee’s cabinet and staff.

“Training is key to saving lives. It is important to teach people to identify those at risk and give them tools to help,” Stuber said. “It’s like training someone to recognize the signs of choking and learning how to deal with the situation quickly and effectively.”

The LEARN suicide awareness training teaches people to:

(1) Look for warning signs of suicide

(2) Empathize and listen to the person who is suicidal

(3) Ask directly about suicide

(4) Remove the dangers such as firearms and prescription medications

(5) Next level of care by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1–800–273–8255.

LEARN Card (official Governor’s Office photo)

More than 150 people, family members, survivors, allies and advocates gathered on the Capitol steps today to share stories and offer support before attending a reception with First Lady Trudi Inslee and visiting elected officials.

“Washington is a leader on the issue of suicide awareness and prevention,” Stuber said. “Six suicide prevention bills have made their way through the Legislature in the past four years, making this the only state in the country requiring that all health care providers understand their role in suicide prevention. Major collaborative efforts are underway, but more needs to be done. This year’s policy efforts are focused on higher educational settings and rural communities where there are not only higher suicide rates of suicide but higher rates of firearm ownership.”

Gov. Jay Inslee participates in suicide prevention training at the Capitol (photo courtesy of Forefront)

According to the state Department of Health, in 2015:

  • 1,521 Washingtonians died from violent death
  • 77 percent of those died by suicide
  • Almost half the suicides were by firearm

Stuber adds that two young people per week die of suicide and for every one person who dies by suicide, there are 25 people who attempt it. Still, death by suicide is underreported by both families and coroners due to shame and perceived stigma.

Risk factors for suicide include depression and substance abuse, especially when coupled with a difficult situation such as the end of a relationship or criminal justice activity.

In 2016, Inslee issued Executive Order 16–02 to address the need to take a public health approach to reduce the number of firearm fatalities and suicides. The Washington Statewide Suicide Prevention Plan was introduced in conjunction with the executive order.

The Washington Statewide Suicide Prevention Plan and recent update on the governor’s executive order outline several strategic directions, goals and recommendations:

  • Promoting depression and suicide risk screening tools, coordinating with Healthier Washington’s integration of behavioral health and primary care in high-need communities
  • Assessing the availability of depression screens in Medicaid and other insurance programs
  • Launching a social marketing campaign to raise suicide awareness and promote prevention with a priority on populations with the highest risk
  • Focusing on recommendations from a gap analysis of programs specific to our schools, veterans and Native American and Alaskan Native communities in collaboration with the respective agencies and partners. Next steps should specifically include planning with Tribal behavioral healthcare providers and mental health crisis providers to coordinate the provision of effective, culturally appropriate crisis intervention and treatment services.

As part of Inslee’s executive order, the Office of Financial Management conducted a gap analysis of the firearm background check system. The gap analysis searched for traits of the system that have the potential to allow individuals, who would otherwise be prohibited from possessing a firearm, to obtain one through otherwise legitimate means. While the general assessment of the system found that most of the background check system functioned as intended, the gaps are worth consideration when looking to improve the system for law enforcement, dealers, firearm purchasers and public safety. More information can be found here.

“Working together, we can make a difference to end preventable suicides in Washington,” Stuber said. “But it will be a marathon and not a sprint. Anything we can do to put time and distance between persons with intent to harm themselves and the means to do it will save lives. After a suicide attempt, people need support. Survivors tell us that they are alive because someone was there for them and that made all the difference.”

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