(Editor’s Note: Following our special four-part collaborative series with the Cottage Grove Sentinel, Newport News-Times and Creswell Chronicle last April focusing on suicide awareness and prevention, we had been planning this story on the Suicide Survivors Support group for the beginning of National Suicide Prevention Month next week. The tragic loss of a long-time Siuslaw Middle School teacher earlier this week to suicide sadly underscores the importance of talking about this subject, the resources available to those who are suffering and, in the event of loss, the services available locally for those coping with that loss.)
Aug. 31, 2019 — September is National Suicide Prevention Month, which means all month, mental health advocates, survivors, family and community members, prevention organizers and allies come together to raise awareness and promote prevention of suicide. This is particularly vital to discuss in Florence, as the community has the highest suicide rate in Lane County; for the past decade, Florence has endured a suicide mortality rate three times higher than the Lane County average.
Lane County Health and Human Services put together a report with 16 years’ worth of data trends, risk factors and recommendations for suicide from the Oregon Health Authority that spans 2000 to 2016 in Lane County. For cities with more than 5,000 residents, Florence, Cottage Grove and Junction City all had more than twice the rate of suicide compared to Lane County as a whole, according to the study published in 2018.
“The report is something that we’ve needed for a long time,” said Roger Brubaker, Suicide Prevention Coordinator for Lane County Public Health.
This report is the first analysis of suicide in Lane County.
“We know that the vast majority of people that die by suicide are either middle-aged or older adults. In Lane County as a whole, we are a little bit older than the rest of the nation and particularly in Florence,” Brubaker said. “So, a lot of people point to Florence sometimes and say, ‘This is because there’s more people there who are more likely to die.’ What this analysis demonstrates is that is part of the story, but not the whole story. The suicide rate is higher not just because of age, but because of everything else essentially.”
Suicide risk increases as people age, specifically with men. Men are nearly four times as likely to die by suicide than women, according to the report. Interpersonal obstacles and life stressors contribute to suicide in Lane County as well. These include triggers such as the death of a spouse or family member, divorce and over 35 percent of suicides in Lane County during the research period were experiencing financial hardships; one in four were suffering from physical health problems. In addition, one in four deaths by suicides in Lane County was a veteran.
Mental illness and substance abuse are among known risk factors for suicide. About half of those who died by suicide in Lane County were diagnosed or demonstrated symptoms of a mental illness or substance abuse disorder, such as depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder.
“Then there’s this whole other part that has to do with suicide, and that’s lethal means restrictions. So, we know that often, people who die by suicide — their transition from thought to action can often be quite brief. Around 50 percent of people are in that 10-minute to one-day range of deciding,” Brubaker said. “If we are able to work with people collaboratively to create environments around them and include their families and themselves in order to limit lethal means — particularly firearms as they are the most lethal — from their environments, then we can actually save lives.”
According to the report, the majority of those who died by suicide in Lane County (57 percent) used a firearm. The most common means of suicide for women was poisoning, specifically with prescription drugs. Brubaker said this is why limiting access to these lethal means is critical to saving lives of those suffering from suicidal thoughts.
“We may not have addressed the underlying distress or illness that they’re experiencing, but now we have time to do so,” Brubaker said. “It’s making sure that those at risk don’t have those things in their environments so that we can keep them safe and help them when they’re ready.”
And those suffering from suicidal thoughts are in fact suffering. After a life is lost to suicide, loved ones often ask why it happened, which Brubaker attributes to a lack of understanding for what those who are suffering are going through.
“The main thing that people often get confused about on suicide is that the people who die by suicide — their real motivation for that act is oftentimes because they’re in excruciating pain, physically or mentally,” Brubaker said. “I think that people get a little lost on this whole concept of ‘people who want to die.’ I’ve never met anyone who wants to die. What they want to do, if they’re at risk of suicide, is to escape that pain. This is important to emphasize because then people can connect with that. People can say ‘Oh, I’ve felt pain too. But what this person is going through must be so intolerable that it would lead them to thinking these thoughts.’ We’ve all been in pain, so think about that in relatable terms.”
Mental health and physical health should be seen as synonymous in terms of taking preventative measures to manage both, the report emphasized.
“I think we all feel it acceptable that we would go to our primary care physician for a checkup, but I don’t think a lot of people, during those checkups, would feel as comfortable or even consider talking about their mental health, or to even check in with themselves about their own mental wellbeing,” Brubaker said. “With the ‘Mind Your Mind’ campaign, it’s about promoting strategies that get people to think about their mental health similarly as they would their physical health.”
The Mind Your Mind project is part of the Lane County Public Health Prevention Program, which aims to create and promote optimal social environments for community health and well-being. The Mind Your Mind campaign is centered on increasing awareness of the importance of mental wellness, reducing stigma and providing practical resources that communities can use to promote mental health, according to their website. For more information on the resources they offer, visit mindyourmindproject.org.
Here in Florence, resources that exist for those suffering include local counselors, therapists and PeaceHealth Counseling Services at PeaceHealth Peace Harbor Medical Center. Currently, Health and Human Services of Lane County is working with the City of Florence to implement a mobile mental health crisis intervention team that will serve Florence and other rural areas in Lane County. The SVFR/WLAD Community Support Team is currently being trained to provide these mental health crisis services.
Lori Severance is the Community Support Team (CST) Coordinator. CST is a program of Siuslaw Valley Fire & Rescue (SVFR) and Western Lane Ambulance District (WLAD).
“We are trained in mental health issues, grief counseling, crisis intervention and disaster response. We have widened our ability to respond to different calls,” Said Severance.
SVFR will be hosting a training on Oct. 15, 16 and 17 that focuses on individual crisis intervention and group crisis intervention. It will be a three-day training at the SVFR main station, 2625 Highway 101 in Florence, and is free of charge.
“This training is available to anyone in the Florence area whose job involves crisis intervention, such as counselors, mental health professionals, law enforcement, ambulance and fire personnel or people who work with the mentally ill,” Severance said. “This training would be helpful to anyone who uses crisis intervention skills in their work.”
The point of the CST team is to provide immediate services for those in need. It currently responds to house fires and medical emergencies such as sudden death situations. Upon the start of the new mobile mental health crisis program, CST “will go out on mental health crisis calls with police or ambulance, provide needed services on scene there and lower the number of people that end up in the ER because of lack of services,” Severance said.
Severance also holds a Suicide Survivor Support group for individuals who have lost someone to suicide. The group meets Mondays from 5:30 to 7 p.m. at SVFR main station on Highway 101.
Severance said with Florence’s high suicide rate, she saw a need for this in western Lane County.
“As long as there is a need, we’ll be here,” she said.
Severance is also a licensed clinical social worker.
“People have talked about how incredibly helpful it is for them to connect with other families who have suffered this type of loss. … This is a very different type of loss,” she said, adding that group members have talked about the incredibly positive result they’re getting from just having that connection with other families who have also lost a loved one to suicide.
“It’s wonderful to see how warmly these families embrace each other,” said Severance
Stigmas plague the topic of suicide from those suffering to individuals who have lost a loved one to suicide. Severance said this is something they spend time talking about in the group.
“We talk a lot about that stigma, the shame, the blame that comes along with having lost someone to suicide in your family. There’s a real feeling of isolation because for most people, it’s a very taboo subject,” Severance said. “People don’t know how to approach the subject, so the family survivors find people sometimes avoiding them. So, we talk a lot about that in group and try to find ways to address these and other issues.”
Severance said they also discuss other aspects of suicide in the group, such as the reasons why family and friends might not have known their loved one was suffering.
“Clues we have in hindsight are usually only available to us after the fact,” she said. “And yet people blame themselves for not being able to predict their loved one’s behavior. Some people choose to suffer in silence. They don’t allow anyone to know they are in tremendous pain. We cannot always know what another is feeling.
“When people get to a point of acting on suicidal thoughts, they have blinders on. The individual doesn’t see that their behavior will be hurting anyone else, In fact, if you talk with a suicidal person, they oftentimes tell you ‘My family will be better off without me.’ They’re thinking at that point is so distorted that they see suicide as their only way out of whatever is overwhelming them; whether it is depression, financial issues, custody battles or whatever.”
Severance said, in general, the main thing to look for when someone might be suffering from suicidal thoughts is a change in behavior. So, whether they’re usually outgoing and suddenly they’re very withdrawn, or if they’re normally very quiet and now they are very loud and boisterous. Sometimes people will be angrier or more verbal than usual.
Ultimately, there is no particular behavior to look for; rather, family members should watch for any drastic change in behavior, according to Severance.
“You just want to be open to talking with them, just letting them know you’re noticing some changes. You’re worried about them, you love them, and you’re there to talk. And give them every opportunity to talk,” Severance said. “You have to keep letting them know you’re there. Keep trying to talk with them, because they may not be able to talk the first 15 times that you approach them — but the 16th time, that window might be open for the kind of communication necessary to get them some help.”
The main thing to emphasize to someone suffering is that they are not alone. Severance said to, “Let them know you are there for them, they are loved, and you will be there for them through their pain.”
Severance also recommends offering to go with the person to seek help, to start them on a path to healing.
“We need to open up the conversation and not have it be so taboo. Let those who are in pain know that you are willing to listen and validate that their feelings are real,” said Severance, who added that fighting the stigma around depression, suicide and mental health in general is the first step.
“In my counseling work, I would often hear people say, ‘I’m not depressed. I don’t need meds. I don’t need counseling.’ I would say to them ‘If you have diabetes, would you say no to insulin?’ Your head and your body — it’s all one,” Severance said. “Why is illness above the neck considered taboo but below the neck is acceptable? We really need to be more open to the fact that mental health issues are no different than physical health issues and need to be treated and addressed just the same. There is no difference.”
For more information on the Suicide Survivor Support group in Florence, contact Severance at 916-802-9705 or visit the Monday meetings.
“Anyone who has lost someone to suicide is more than welcome to attend group,” said Severance. “The families here are very warm and welcoming.”
Lane County offers multiple resources for those suffering from depression and suicidal thoughts, as well as resources for those who have lost a loved one to suicide.
Hourglass Community Crisis Center is a 24-hour crisis drop-in center serving adults in Lane County. If an adult is experiencing a mental health crisis, they can receive immediate care and services. Located at 71 Centennial Loop, Suite A, Eugene, OR.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) also offers many support groups for those suffering from suicidal thoughts and a family support group for those who have lost someone to suicide. These take place in Eugene at 2411 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. It can also be accessed by visiting suicidepreventionlifeline.org. The lifeline for Spanish speakers, Nacional de Prevención del Suicidio, is 1-888-628-9454. The lifeline for deaf and hard of hearing people is 1-800-799-4889.