by Greg Rajnowski
I’m always skeptical of people that use “ONLY,” “ALL,” “NEVER,” “NOTHING,” “EVERYONE,” and “ALWAYS,” in their expressions. For me, it’s kind of like the scene in Star Wars: Episode III, where Anakin states, “If you’re not with me, then you’re my enemy,” and then Obi-wan ironically states, “Only a Sith deals in Absolutes.” – or like when I started this paragraph with the statement “I’m always…”
However, over the last 20 years of living in Mesa County, teaching in the school district, working in the field of public health, and now, as a member of the Western Colorado Suicide Prevention Foundation, I’m absolutely in the camp of the Cautiously Optimistic.
But why? When the rate of men in Mesa County that complete (yes, not “commit”) suicide is one of the highest in the state; the number of firearm-related suicides in certain neighborhoods in Mesa County consistently place us in the top five counties in the state; and the rate of teen and adult female suicide attempts in the last 10 years are significantly higher than the state rate for the same groups. Adding to that, the national “epidemic” with opioids is a clear indicator of our ever growing inability to cope with daily stressors, and our increased comfort with marijuana indicates a desire to medicate our way out of our uncomfortable relationship with reality. Not to mention that the depressed economy gives us a reasonable number of opportunities daily to be anxious and depressed ourselves. Studies are released daily noting the increasing narcissism in our society as the result of our increased emphasis on isolating activities and dependence on technology, rather than each other. These are the facts, folks (although some may debate the last point). So why is pessimism not an option also?
Because to figure out how bad it really is, I’ve been in a position to ask the question: “What is being done?” And I’ve met with subject matter experts, interviewed, and gathered research on what is going on locally.
And the answer?
A lot. Enough to justify my cautious optimism.
First, changes in the last few years in the Suicide Prevention Foundation director, board, and development of county-level strategic plans point to signs of a more constructive approach to prevention and intervention. Before this, there were more programs, and less coordination and strategy: more arrows and less ability to identify the target (if you can forgive the expression).
Second, collaboration among local organizations is resulting in a concerted effort to identify who is doing what, when, and how those efforts can enhance, rather than duplicate what is occurring in Mesa County.
Third, practices have been implemented with purpose and evidence in their effectiveness, in a way that can only be described as more scientific. Having conversations with gun shops and liquor stores about safe firearm storage, and physicians about storage of overdose-likely medicines is a much more effective solution (and EVIDENCE-BASED) than issuing general warnings about “gun safety.” Recent research from China where overdose due to toxic fertilizers declined significantly supports this fact. Factors creating distance from the means to a quick method of suicide (and in China, fertilizer is quick, due to the high toxicity of fertilizers there) saw a 58% reduction in the suicide rate over 27 years.
Last, we are slowly, but surely, raising the bar when it comes to getting the community talking. One hopes that this too won’t take 27 years to see results. While I might be biased on this point, the Health Department’s collaboration with the Suicide Prevention Foundation at the Farmer’s Market is one significant example. The 221 chairs displayed at the Farmer’s Market on September 1 get people talking, looking, and thinking; and discussing within their social media circles. Facebook and Twitter and other social media platforms are making the issue harder to ignore, and easier to start conversations. And that pushes me past the tipping point to being cautiously optimistic.
We can’t, as one of my colleagues describes it, “shave down the monument” to prevent suicides. But we CAN counsel friends, families, co-workers on restricting access to lethal means; we CAN take ASIST and BSIT (Brief Suicide Intervention Training)classes; we CAN provide screening for behavioral health in the doctor’s office and refer those in need to care AND ensure that a warm handoff takes place; we CAN further study the issue locally to determine if the high number of attempts are due to lack of access or delivery of behavioral health care.
So I’m cautiously optimistic- because we CAN and we ARE doing all these things.
And I’m ABSOLUTELY confident WE CAN make a change in the rate for the better.
Take that, Obi-wan.