County coalition takes on suicide

County to pilot VA program

By ANDREW MCGINN

a.mcginn@beeherald.com

Greene County is partnering with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the University of Pittsburgh to pilot a suicide prevention program aimed at the entire community.

Even though no one knows for certain the exact scope of suicide in Greene County, members of a new Greene County Suicide Prevention Coalition have to assume that someone at this moment is thinking about taking their own life.

“If we can save one person, it’s all worth it,” said Mike Bierl, director of Greene County Veterans Affairs.

The VA is coordinating the new program with the thought that by extending suicide prevention outreach to all members of a community, veterans will undoubtedly be assisted as well.

Just last year, local students in grades 6, 8 and 11 once again told the Iowa Department of Public Health that suicide is on their minds, with more girls thinking about killing themselves than boys.

Nearly 30 percent of eighth-grade girls in Greene County answered on the IDPH’s 2018 Iowa Youth Survey that they had thought seriously about killing themselves within the past 12 months, in addition to 25 percent of sixth-grade girls and 24 percent of girls in 11th grade.

Of those, 20 percent of 11th grade girls answered that they had made a plan to kill themselves.

Greene County was the only county in central Iowa to express interest in participating in the pilot program, according to Lori Reynolds, a suicide prevention outreach/education specialist with the VA’s Des Moines-based Central Iowa Health Care System, which also operates a popular clinic in Carroll.

“You guys were the most welcoming,” Reynolds said. “That’s why we’re starting here.”

Deaths of veterans by suicide have been a source of national concern in recent years, but the majority of vets who took their own lives were largely outside the VA health care system. Of the 20 veterans who die each day of suicide, it’s estimated that only six accessed VA health care within a year of their deaths.

According to data, suicide deaths in Iowa tend to be among ages 35 to 54.

Suicides among farmers — certainly a key demographic in Greene County — have also come to the public’s attention lately.

With help identifying potential members from Bierl and Ellen Ritter, Greene County’s liaison to the 11-county CICS mental health region, the new coalition met for its first monthly meeting in September.

Members include Jefferson Police Chief Mark Clouse, Greene County Sheriff Jack Williams and Greene County Ambulance director Michele Madsen — three officials who often find themselves tending to people at their darkest moments.

Reynolds said she’s amazed by the pooling of resources in Greene County.

Because suicide is still so polarizing, it’s not always reported as a cause of death out of protection for a family, said Ali Burrell, of the University of Pittsburgh’s Program Evaluation and Research Unit (PERU).

PERU contacted the VA about undertaking a suicide prevention program that would be based on a similar program targeting the opioid crisis in Pennsylvania.

Burrell said that opioid overdose deaths were cut by 33 percent in Pennsylvania over a three-year period after community coalitions were formed across that state.

PERU thinks its model can be adopted by the VA to address suicide.

“If we work to protect everyone,” Burrell said, “we will protect veterans as well.”

Other members of the local coalition include representatives from the schools and the mental health field. Angela Tharp, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) of Central Iowa, which serves Greene County, felt personally called to join the coalition because she lost a son of her own to suicide.

Representatives from The Jefferson Herald and Raccoon Valley Radio were tapped to help change the messaging associated with suicide.

A person dies by suicide, Reynolds said, they don’t commit suicide.

To write or say that someone committed suicide implies a crime, perpetuating the stigma.

Over the coming months, the coalition will work to implement an outreach program locally.

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