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$1.4M grant to fund first statewide suicide prevention effort

By Mike Sherry | November 20, 2012

Tom Krebs, a clinician at the Johnson County Mental Health Center, assists a caller to the center's after-hours crisis line. Krebs tasks include screening clients for admission to state mental health facilities. Mental health professionals in Johnson County and across Kansas are looking at ways to improve suicide-prevention services.

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Backed by a $1.4 million federal grant, prevention specialists here are working on what is considered the first statewide program for stopping suicides, which claim hundreds of Kansas lives a year.

Plans are underway for an organizational meeting this summer to help kick off the program, funding for which was awarded in August after several failed attempts to secure the federal seed money.

Among other things, organizers will use the grant to build coalitions and support training for suicide-prevention activists, said Marcia Epstein, director of Headquarters Counseling Center in Lawrence, which is administering the grant.

The coordinated prevention effort will focus on 10- to 24-year-olds.

For 15- to 44-year-olds, suicide trailed only unintentional injuries as the second leading cause of death in Kansas, according to 2010 statistics — the latest available — from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment Department.

According to agency numbers, the state’s suicide rate of 13.38 deaths per 100,000 people exceeded the national average of 11.8 per 100,000 residents. There were 409 suicides recorded in Kansas in 2010.

Epstein said the program’s kick-off meeting will be held in the middle or western part of the state to highlight concerns about elevated suicide rates in rural areas.

Planners want the coalitions to include representatives of groups identified as high risk for suicide, she said, including veterans, Native Americans and survivors of suicide loss.


Suicide in Kansas: Injury Prevention and Disability Program

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As far as the community training goes, Epstein said, the goal will be to certify trainers throughout the state on programs such as Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training, or ASIST, so they can pass the knowledge to other members of the community.

“It’s not going to train you as a therapist,” she said, “but it’s going to help you be able to intervene with somebody at immediate risk of suicide in part by your ability to talk with them, and in part by your knowing how to get them to the next person who has more training to deal with more emergency needs.”

Expanding suicide prevention efforts

More specifics of the effort, Epstein said, include:

• Creating a website for sharing information among regional coalitions. The site is expected to be an online portal for the groups to share best practices for dealing with potential suicide victims across the age spectrum. Headquarters and coalition officials also likely will produce training DVDs for use in areas that lack reliable Internet service, Epstein said.

• Establishing pilot projects to address specific community needs, such as a high rate of teen suicide.

• Adding more telephone lines and staffing for the hotline Headquarters maintains as part of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, as well as adding services such as texting, live chat and video conferencing.

Before the grant came through in August, according to state health officials, Kansas had no statewide program focused solely on suicide prevention, though the Bureau of Health Promotion at the Kansas Department of Health and Environment devoted some resources to the problem.

The new initiative is in conjunction with the Suicide Prevention Subcommittee of the Governor’s Mental Health Services Planning Council.

Epstein is a co-chair of the subcommittee along with Bill Art, a crisis clinician at the Johnson County Mental Health Center.

It took five tries to win the federal grant against stiff competition, Art said.

“From what I gather,” he said, “if you are a state department, it is a little bit easier to get the grant. We could not get any of the state departments to take ownership of it.”

Ultimately the Kansas Department of Health and Environment provided staff time, data and letters of support for Headquarters’ grant application, said KDHE officials.

“Many Kansas communities have been working to prevent youth suicides for several years, and this new funding will help with broader implementation,” said Lori Haskett, director of injury prevention and disability programs at KDHE.

Suicide spike in Johnson County

In a separate but related effort, mental health professionals in Johnson County are taking steps to reduce suicides there.

The call to action in the state’s most populated county came after coroner statistics showed that suicides in the county had spiked from 45 in 2008 to 70 through October of this year.

Stress from the economic downturn is likely a key factor in the increase, according to members of the county’s mental health community.

Johnson County health officials convened a summit in Olathe last week to discuss the problem. About 140 people attended, including Art and Epstein.

Officials hope to have a community action plan completed within the next month, said Tim DeWeese, director of clinical services for the Johnson County Mental Health Center.

One big need is better coordination within the health and public safety systems, Art said.

He cited a story from the summit about a drug overdose patient who was able to purchase a gun and kill herself not long after her discharge from the hospital.

The Olathe meeting also was helpful because it got people talking publicly about what can be a taboo subject, DeWeese said.

“It’s really about educating the public, it’s about making them aware of the issue, it’s about helping parents feel comfortable talking to their kids about their feelings, if they are feeling suicidal,” he said. “It’s sometimes an uncomfortable subject that we need to feel comfortable talking about.”

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