November 1st, 2013

N.H. Suicide Prevention Council engages community

In addition to the conventional steps of suicide prevention (education, training, a 24-hour hotline, increased public awareness, etc.), the New Hampshire Suicide Prevention Council (NHSPC) is going the extra mile, actively engaging community sectors that have not traditionally participated in this area.

“Suicide prevention belongs to all of us,” says Jo Moncher, vice chair of the Council.

Simply stated, suicide prevention is a community issue, not just a concern for the mental health system. By getting different segments of the community involved, educated and active, the NHSPC is attacking the problem at the root, instead of dealing with the tragic aftermath. The Council hosts conferences, holds monthly meetings, promotes policy change and provides a wide array of educational activities.

“We are reaching out to have leadership from our police, military, law enforcement and substance abuse [clinicians],” Moncher says. “We’re really trying to get systems to communicate with each other and share messaging.”

Others serving on the 33-member council include representatives of the school system, healthcare, the corrections system, youth services, religious organizations, politicians and mental health organizations, including the New Hampshire chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

An example of this new community-based approach has become evident in the state’s correctional facilities. Incarcerated individuals with mental illness have typically been a high-risk group for suicide.

“In recent years, corrections has shifted its mindset to a more mental health-focused arena,” says Kevin Stevenson, M.S. administrator for the Secure Psychiatric Unit and Residential Treatment Unit, New Hampshire Department of Corrections. “Many more jails have mental health professionals on staff.”

Stevenson, an SPC member, says that many facilities have now developed crisis intervention plans, addressing the underlying causes of a possible suicide, not just symptoms.

Two other groups that are at high risk for suicide within their own ranks are the military and law enforcement. These occupations tend to be stressful by nature and can involve long, demanding, irregular hours.

According to a published report that cited the Department of Defense, more military service members (349) took their own lives in 2012 than were lost in combat (295).

Veterans, in particular, are a high-risk group. A recent study by News21, an investigative multimedia program for journalism students, reveals that the suicide rate of veterans is twice that of the national average. One out of five suicides is committed by a veteran.

A special partnership between Easter Seals New Hampshire, the Dept. of Health and Human Services and the New Hampshire National Guard, launched in 2007, deals with this problem. The program is called Deployment Cycle Support Care Coordination Program (DCS-CCP) and covers the full cycle of military service. Although this program is not a part of the Suicide Prevention Council, many of the activities overlap and parallel SPC efforts.

“We provide support to service members and their loved ones before, during and after deployment,” explains Daisy Wojewoda, M.S., CRC, CVE, director of military and veterans’ services for Easter Seals NH.

Service members and their families are assigned a care coordinator who acts as a conduit to any type of help that is needed, clinical or otherwise. Since its inception, the DCS-CCP has served 2,292 service members or veterans.

“Since the program started,” says Wojewoda, “there have been at least 60 incidences where there was a genuine clinical suicide risk and the care coordinator was able to intervene and prevent the suicide.

On the law enforcement side, the New Hampshire State Police have developed a peer-to-peer counseling program to promote mental and physical health among its 500-plus officers, with a specific focus on suicide prevention.

Peer counselors, who receive special training, have been effective, largely because they are compassionate and approachable. “Suicide prevention is really providing people with coping skills, providing people with an outlet and professional help,” says Maj. Russell Conte, commander of the state police’s Field Operations Bureau and an SPC member.

“We’re intervening with all the issues and all the problems that could escalate to the point where somebody may feel despondent. We’re nipping it in the bud.”

When peer counselors determine that clinical assistance is needed, an appropriate referral is made. “I don’t keep any statistics but it’s used daily” says Conte. “I’ve seen a tremendous trend in the health of our organization and the attitudes of people.”

By Howard Newman

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