The California Suicide Prevention Network is being paid for by a tax on millionaires, approved by the voters in 2004. One of the network’s projects is to find the “best practices” that work for the prevention of suicide.
Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services, a Southern California company said to have created the first crisis line in the country, was awarded the three-year contract and began work nearly a year ago. They divided the state into six regions, with Shasta County and its neighboring 12 rural counties being in the Northern Region. The first meeting of the Northern Region was held in June in Redding with Help Inc. (the nonprofit operator of Helpline) coordinating the effort. Seven counties were represented.
Muffy Berryhill, Susan Wilson, Haley Huttenmaier, and Nancey Kolb have been hired as part-time consultants in an effort to find what services are available in each county. The study will look at specific suicide prevention issues, at-risk populations that have not been identified or are underserved, what the problems are, what works and what doesn’t.
The money available for the Superior California Region is $213,000. Help Inc. receives none of that. The consultants will be paid to work a total of 90 hours a month. The remainder of the funds will be for materials, supplies, professional services, travel and training.
Berryhill, who was the director of Helpline from 1986 to 1994, said their mission must be completed by June 2014, when the grant money expires. They will hold quarterly meetings; the next one will be held at the end of this month.
One of the statewide goals is to get all the crisis centers to collect the same information to help determine what works best in suicide prevention. The “best practices” from every county will be shared with other counties in the region and with other regions in the state in an effort to come up with a national strategy for suicide prevention.
Berryhill said that Shasta County is “way ahead of the curve,” because of the Shasta County Suicide Prevention Community Assessment compiled by Katie Cassidy and Jeremy Wilson of the Shasta County Health and Human Services Agency in August 2011.
That report found that “suicide is a uniquely personal behavior and what constitutes ‘severe risk’ for one individual may not have the same severity for another.”
The assessment identified a number of individual risk factors, including the following: alcohol and substance abuse, history of trauma or abuse, chronic pain or physical illness, mental health problems, loss (spousal, job, status), poor impulse control, fascination with death or violence, history of violence, confusion about identity, compulsive extreme perfectionism, feelings of hopelessness, powerlessness, desperation, and prior suicide attempts.
There are also community risk factors that include lack of access to helping services, stigma associated with seeking help, and access to lethal means. Nearly half of all suicides in Shasta County are completed with firearms, and more than 75 percent of gun deaths in this community are suicides.
According to the professionals we talked to, if people are going to kill themselves, they don’t call and don’t seek help. They find a way. Firearms make it easy to commit the act, leaving friends and relatives wondering what they could have done to prevent it.
There are support groups for those left behind. Helpline has taken over the Mercy Hospice Suicide Survivors Support Group. The first session under Helpline was held on July 24 at St. James Lutheran Church, and, although only two people showed up, Jace Keeton, the facilitator, is enthusiastic. He said meetings will continue to be held every other Tuesday, from 7 to 8:30 p.m.
Keeton had no connection with suicide until about five years ago when a new co-worker failed to show up for work for several days, and he found out that her mother had committed suicide.
“When she came back a week later she had a great façade,” he said. He gave her his number in case she wanted to talk to someone. Two or three weeks later, she called, sobbing. Keeton found a suicide support group and gave her that information, but she couldn’t get there, so he took her. He ended up taking her to the group for several months, sitting quietly in the back, only speaking if someone asked him a question.
Eventually, “one of the facilitators asked me if I’d like to co-facilitate,” Keeton said. “He liked the way I listened. At the same time I went to Helpline, took their training. I took one shift, with a mentor, decided that listening to someone on the telephone did not fit my personality. But I continued with the support group for the next three years. I stopped when I became a night-shift supervisor. I’ve been away from it for two-and-a-half years.”
Three months ago, he met Huttenmaier, who works with Helpline. One thing led to another, and Steve Smith, the director, offered him the facilitator position.
Keeton has set up an answering machine at his home, dedicated to this purpose. The number is 242-1997. Huttenmaier is going to advertise on Craigslist, Redding.com, and send fliers to therapists, the coroner’s office, funeral homes, and law enforcement agencies.
Keeton said the most important part of being a facilitator is to listen. “It’s a learning process that never ends, and as much as I may know about what people go through, I’ve never been there,” he said.
Bill Siemer grew up on a farm in Lassen County, played basketball at Shasta JC, went to Vietnam, became a newspaper reporter and then a lawyer and now considers himself a champion of the story that needs to be told. He lives on the bank of the river and takes pictures.