By GARY POPP
Area leaders are making efforts to start a community-wide discourse on a very personal and tragic issue — suicide.
Mental health expert Ellen Kelley, a clinical manager at LifeSpring Health Systems in Jeffersonville, said research supports that the more suicide is openly discussed in the community and at the dinner table, the less often people take their own lives.
“One of the big symptoms of suicide is secrets. The idea of keeping things secret has increased suicides,” Kelley said.
Kelley was the primary speaker at a suicide prevention workshop held Feb. 26 at St. Luke’s United Church of Christ in Jeffersonville. Nearly 50 people filed into the basement of church to attend the workshop, a turnout that surprised organizers and showed a need for suicide awareness in the community.
The workshop came at a critical time.
Clark County Sheriff’s Maj. Donnie Bowyer said suicide awareness events, such as that held at St. Luke’s, helps not only community members, but also law enforcement.
“Starting Dec. 6, for six weeks straight, we had one suicide a week that the [Clark County] sheriff’s office worked, and that says something,” he said, adding he has never seen such a streak in his law enforcement career. “That is telling us there is something we have got to do.”
Bowyer, who attended the workshop, said the recent rash of suicides in Clark County makes the need for mental health services in the area even more obvious.
He said members of law enforcement are often the ones who respond to suicide-related incidents, but those in need of assistance are not criminals who should be jailed, but people in need of mental health professionals.
“We would a whole lot rather see them get that mental health that they need, instead of going to our jail because our jail is overcrowded, anyway. And, that is not where they need to be anyway,” Bowyer said.
Kelley wanted those who attended the workshop to leave with some fundamental skills to identify suicidal symptoms in others and the knowledge to take basic steps to prevent a loss of life. She said there is a lack of discussion not only before the fatal act that could have saved one person’s life, but afterward, which can prevent many others from taking their lives.
“When a person does complete a suicide, we don’t talk about it. It is not listed in the paper,” Kelley said. “We hear when someone dies of cancer or when someone dies in a car wreck, but we don’t really talk about it when it is a suicide.”
She wants to see mental health and suicide prevention to follow the path of general first aid education from the 1930s, when a massive push was made to educate the public on treating the physically injured. She said mental health first aid can be taught to the public just like treating wounds and spider bites.
“All of a sudden, people no longer died of these things because other members of the community helped them, and that is what mental health first aid is all about,” Kelley said. “We can make that big of a difference. People will no longer die of this. People will seek treatment and go on to live happy, healthy lives.”
The workshop was organized by St. Luke’s Pastor Jennifer Mills-Knutsen, who said the church has held other community forums in past, but it was the first time suicide was the topic of discussion.
Mills-Knutsen said plans for the workshop began after a series of suicides in the area touched the lives of those in her church.
“Between Thanksgiving and now, we had a whole host of people that were just very slightly removed from our congregation who took their own lives,” she said. “We were hearing it [suicide] as a prayer concern fairly regularly.”
As Mills-Knutsen continued to learn about reports of suicides, she and others decided to take action.
“I said, ‘We have to start talking about this. We have start doing something about it,’” she said.
Mills-Knutsen immediately received support from LifeSpring, American Federation for Suicide Prevention and surrounding churches after deciding to organize the workshop.
“It was prompted by the experience of knowing far too many who died,” she said. “And, people are left grieving, wondering what they should have done or should have noticed or seen and wanted to address those questions.”
Mills-Knutsen said public forums, like the one at held St. Luke’s, will lead to broader community engagement. She found it “powerful” not only that so many people came to the workshop, but they represented such a diverse group that including emergency responders, teachers, therapists, law enforcement officers, clergy and parents.
“They were all asking the same questions and looking for the same information,” she said. “There is really no spaces where those people sit down and talk to one another. This topic brought everybody together because they have all been touched by it, and they are all concerned about it.”
Clark County Circuit Court No. 1 Judge Dan Moore also spoke at the workshop, calling those who treat the mentally ill, “The great unsung heroes of our community”
Moore said he hopes to soon revitalize the Crisis Intervention Team, a program that encourages communication between area law enforcement agencies and hospitals, provides officers specialized mental health training and, ideally, provide better services to those suffering mental illnesses, including suicide-related calls.
“It is just an upper level, beyond the basic police academy training about mental health,” Moore said, adding that the training better equips area law enforcement officers who come into contact with the mentally ill.
He said the program was successful for two years, but evaporated after funding was lost.
“It makes sense and lets police get a little more sense of what is going on in the street,” Moore said of the CIT program.
Mills-Knutsen said she hopes that other similar workshops and forums are made available to the public and that community strategies are created to decrease the occurrence of the preventable deaths.
“I hope this launches a continuing conversation, and that we can, perhaps, repeat this kind of education event in other settings and other places,” she said.