I was going back through some emails from earlier this year and ran across the Suicide Prevention Coalition of North Central Washington’s annual review, put together by Dr. Julie Rickard.
The report provides a sobering look at the state of mental health in our region and provides insights into ways that we can work together to address this human crisis in our communities.
In 2019, suicides in Chelan and Douglas counties accounted for 26 deaths — 20 in Chelan County and six in Douglas County.
The number of suicides has grown the last three years back to nearly the level we were at in 2011 when there were 31 instances of people taking their lives. That’s what prompted the Suicide Prevention Coalition to start working on collaborative ways to address the root causes with meaningful interventions.
Rickard’s report examines the most current data, such as age, the breakdown of males and females, the means by which people took their lives and the contributing factors.
According to the report, “what it shows clearly is that depression and relationship issues were significant contributing factors along with medical, legal, employment issues and use of firearms.”
Americans love their guns and value the Second Amendment. However, having so many weapons in our society makes it easy for people in emotional distress to take action before an intervention can take place. This is certainly reflected in the numbers in our region when 50-80 percent of the suicides are the result of gunshots in most years. That is another sobering reality.
The work of the coalition has been instrumental in encouraging local health providers like Confluence Health and Columbia Valley Community Health to ask patients to rate their mental health as a way of encouraging early intervention by primary care physicians.
I was encouraged to learn from the report that asking questions like “Are you suicidal?” or “Are these problems you are facing bad enough for you to want to kill yourself?” do not increase the person’s risk, but actually reduce the risk of suicide. “It improves hope and decreases the risk,” according to Rickard’s report.
Chelan and Douglas counties were averaging 10 to 15 suicides a year from 2006-2009 and then the numbers started rising significantly. Thirty-one suicides were reported in 2011, which prompted Rickard and others to launch the Suicide Prevention Coalition that brings together a broad array of mental health stakeholders in the region to figure out solutions.
Collaborative projects like this are the best way to address social challenges because without these efforts, individual organizations tend to get locked in on their own piece of the puzzle and lose sight of the bigger picture.
One of the important ways that the coalition is making use of the data is by convening working groups to address specific areas of concern. Information isn’t helpful if you’re not taking action based on that data. The coalition has created work groups to address some specific opportunities.
The teen marketing work group is developing ways to find meaningful ways to help young people in the two counties. The universal screening work group has piloted a screening process at Wenatchee and Eastmont high schools to identify students who are at risk. That work is expanding.
Another work group is looking into addressing the risks among our senior citizens and a new group has been formed to create a pathway to care for mental health providers leadership and first responders.
Our valley suffered the loss of one of its most gifted and powerful advocates when Eric Skansgaard of Catholic Charities took his life last year. The diversion program he helped launch that gave law enforcement officers and corrections officers support in addressing individuals with mental health issues has not yet been replaced.
Looking out after our neighbors who are struggling with these issues is all of our responsibility. That’s what being a community is all about.
Rufus Woods is the publisher emeritus of The Wenatchee World. He may be reached at email@example.com or 509-665-1162.