Suicide awareness training elicits reflections, stories, questions
Large crowd shares stories, concerns, queries
June 4, 2016
Craig — For Shannon Davis, Tuesday's Community Suicide Awareness Training session helped bring to light a problem that's prevalent in the community — but not always prevalent in community conversation. Davis attended Tuesday’s session with family members.
"We're here tonight because my son attended school with the young man who recently passed, and I think this is a good topic that needs to be brought out and publicized," Davis said after the session. "It doesn't get enough publicity. Being in a rural community, it needs to be discussed."
Reaching Everyone Preventing Suicide (REPS), a suicide awareness agency that covers Moffat and Routt counties, partnered with Moffat County United Way to offer the training at the Clarion Inn & Suites in Craig.
Davis was in attendance with her high school and middle school children. Her son Kasen Tansey, now a seventh-grader at Craig Middle School, talked with a thoughtful deliberation in his voice as he contemplated the session's importance to him. Kasen recalled a friend who was struggling emotionally — and who ended up receiving help.
"I wanted to come tonight because I had a friend who thought thoughts of suicide," said Kasen, who's 11. "I feel great that I helped, and I just wanted to know other (ways) to help and see signs from other kids in school."
About 75 people attended Tuesday’s free training, a group large enough to make intimate discussion challenging. But this group shared, sometimes digging deeply into personal experiences and nagging questions related directly and indirectly to suicide.
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According to Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment data, 31.3 people per a population of 100,000 died by suicide in Moffat County from 2000 to 2014, compared to 17.3 in the state. During that time, 77 percent of suicide deaths in Moffat County came by firearm.
Becoming ‘first responders’
Meghan Francone, executive director of REPS, led much of the session, with help from Molly Fiore, program director of SpeakUp ReachOut, the suicide prevention coalition of Eagle County. Norm Rimmer, school resource officer with the Craig Police Department, and Amanda Arnold, executive director of the Moffat County United Way, also contributed to the presentation.
Francone told the people in attendance that they were "not going to leave here as counselors." She also reminded them that often "we are the first responders to somebody in crisis." People who struggle, she continued, may turn to families, neighbors, friends and co-workers.
"That's why it's important for all of us to be trained in this," she said.
The training followed the model of the QPR Institute, advocating a sequence of Questioning, Persuading and Referring when someone at risk of suicide. Francone likened the training — as others have — to CPR.
"This is first aid for mental health, and specifically suicide," she said.
'Easy access to lethal means'
Francone acknowledged the difficulty of talking about suicide, and also the means by which suicide deaths occur. She underlined a comment from one of the participants that "easy access to lethal means" is a leading cause of suicide deaths in the area.
"That's a huge one," Francone said, noting that she — like many Moffat County residents — owns guns.
"In Moffat County, I know that in my home we have firearms,” she said. “But with owning those firearms, we know that we have to keep them safe. We have to keep them out of reach of individuals who are in crisis."
Francone spoke about the issue from experience.
"We lost a brother-in-law here in Moffat County six years ago because we did not lock up a firearm," she said.
Francone also addressed the belief that people who want to die by suicide will find other means, if firearms are taken away. She called that a myth, widely held in the area.
"Research shows that if we disable a plan … or increase time and distance between somebody and their lethal means, they will probably not find another way," she said.
And even if they do seek other means, she said, those methods are less likely to be successful.
"The chances of them being here tomorrow increase drastically," Francone said.
A number of people homed in on the connection between drugs and alcohol and suicide. It's a problem Rimmer said police encounter frequently.
"People try to self-medicate in order to try to fight that depression rather than actually seek mental help," he noted during the gathering.
The effectiveness of connection
People with suicidal thoughts who find help have a good chance of avoiding suicidal behavior in the future, Francone said, as she moved through some research with the audience. John Forgay, an investigator with the Craig Police Department, said his own observations coincide with that conclusion.
"Some of them make attempts over and over," Forgay said after the gathering. "But once they get help that seems to go away. A lot of the ones who are deaths by suicide, we haven't necessarily come into contact with before."
Tuesday's discussion, while following the QPR framework, traveled into many areas touching the topic of suicide. Fiore spoke about regions that have high rates of suicide, noting access to firearms as a main characteristic. She also noted that isolated areas tend to harbor higher suicide rates.
One of the attendees, Mayola Cruz, noted the way people whose primary language is Spanish can face obstacles when seeking help.
"I'm so worried for the Hispanic population," said Cruz, who serves in the patient advisory group for Northwest Colorado Health, formerly the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association.
Cruz said she talked to people about the suicide prevention training, and they expressed interest. Then the topic of language came up.
"Most of my friends asked me, 'Is it in Spanish?'” she explained. “And I said, 'It's in English.' And so they don't go."
Francone said the prospects were good for an interpreter to be present at the next training — with a date for such a training still to be determined.
Cruz also talked about her concern that children, as well as adults, have struggled with depression and suicide. She noted the prevalence of technology in their lives.
"Sometimes our teenagers think they need to do something that they saw in social (media)," she said after the meeting, noting cyberspace as a potentially trouble-filled area, where children might feel compelled to do what appears trendy or stylish.
Others noted the way technology, in the right regions of cyberspace, can provide solace. One person mentioned steamboatcounseling.com, a site with area therapists, along with writings and resources on mental health topics. Another mentioned the site, mantherapy.org, with a website that bills itself "therapy from the creators of pork chops and fighter jets."
One audience member noted that people who feel out of place within the community — due to sexual orientation and other factors — may be at a greater risk. Francone assented to that.
"Gay, lesbians, transgender … their number are much higher, and their attempts are much higher, as well," she said.
Tight budgets and the importance of resources
Some people also contemplated the importance of mentorship for children, pointing to the Boys & Girls Club as one strong resource in the area. But an organized mentorship program is something many in Northwest Colorado have said could be helpful. Arnold noted the topic would be discussed at the next community forum, sponsored by the Moffat County Department of Social Services.
After the session, Deb Durbin, a paraprofessional at Sandrock Elementary School, probed more deeply into this topic of mentorship — and the need for informed mentorship. She described the importance of the training to her and to others who work closely with children.
"Depression might start as early as elementary, and I need to recognize the signs," she said, adding that children frequently open up to the adults who work with them.
Durbin also spoke to the concern of tight budgets and shrinking personnel in the Moffat County School District.
"I have a position, but I have lost some of my colleagues — and that's concerning for me," Durbin said. "Less eyes on our children is concerning to me."
Saying what's hard to say
Throughout the session, organizers and participants noted the importance of uttering things that can be awfully tough to say. Francone stressed the need to ask, when there's a suspicion of suicidal thoughts, whether or not a person is considering suicide.
"How you ask the question is less important than that you ask it," Francone said. "If it's a situation in which you feel you're not able to ask that question, find somebody who can."
Many people also noted the stigma that persists when it comes to asking for help — a stigma that some say is particularly entrenched among men in the community. But a theme that emerged repeatedly throughout the night is the value of speaking out, both for the person weathering emotional turmoil and for the people noticing it.
"When in doubt, call," said Craig Thornhill, program director for Mind Springs Health, in Craig. "Period. Across the board. Call."
The number that Thornhill provided, the Mine Springs Health crisis line, is 888-207-4004. The REPS crisis line is 970-846-8182, and the National Suicide Hotline is 800-273-8255.
Francone also stressed the importance of calling law enforcement if any danger appears imminent.
“If somebody says that they are going to try to die by suicide or cause harm to somebody else, I will absolutely call in law enforcement … because they could be in imminent danger,” she said.
Rimmer added that, for the police, receiving such calls is never an inconvenience.
“We get a lot of calls from people who will call and tell us, ‘I’m really sorry to bother you guys, but I’ve got this friend …’ It’s not a bother to us. That’s what we do,” Rimmer said.
Others noted the tonic effect of uttering words of another kind: words of compassion, and of love, that can sometimes be difficult to unleash. Fiore recounted the way people said such words to her when she was enmeshed in deep emotional pain.
"’You're not alone, and you're so loved,’" she recalled someone saying to her. "I can't even tell you how helpful it was to hear that."