RICHMOND — Cindy Duncan challenged those gathered Monday at her family’s Harvest Acres Farm to “plant seeds of hope” to help eradicate suicides in Washington County.
Duncan, who serves as co-chair of the South County Healthy Bodies, Healthy Minds Zero Suicide Advisory Board, spoke to an audience of health care and social service providers, and state- and federally-elected and appointed officials who came together to learn about and celebrate the allotment of $2 million in federal funding to implement new screening and care for those at risk of taking their own lives.
According to South County Healthy Bodies, Healthy Minds, one of nine health equity zones in the state, Washington County has the highest rate of suicide among the state’s five counties, and the rate grew 20 percent in two years from 2013 to 2015. Three of the state’s five towns with the highest suicide rates are in Washington County.
Duncan described her family’s ongoing journey to heal from her daughter Cassandra’s suicide at the age of 14 in 2005. The family has become very acquainted with the nation’s health care system as one of their sons was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and another son has cerebral palsy.
“Because of the journey I am on I have learned so much. After Cassie’s death and my son began to suffer — he’s been hospitalized 12 times — I kept hoping and praying that I wouldn’t lose another child. I realized what a mess the mental health system is and because of that I learned I had to make some changes. That is where my seeds of hope began,” Duncan said.
As part of the newly announced initiative, health care providers at South Country Health, the hospital in Wakefield, and Westerly Hospital will continue screening emergency department patients for signs of suicide and depression. The grant will allow for active follow-up for one year for patients who screen positive for either suicidal ideation or depression. The grant will also make mental heath services available to those who are uninsured or under-insured, said Dr. Robert Harrison.
A physician at Westerly Hospital, Harrison is serving as program director of Healthy Bodies Health Minds Zero Suicide initiative. Harrison has been a tireless provider of QPR Suicide Prevention training in the region for several years. Like CPR, QPR, which stands for question, persuade and refer, is intended to teach anyone how to spot people in crisis and help them. “Zero suicide is a change in both the culture and the systems. It’s dramatic change,” Harrison said.
The initiative will use core public health principles, data and evidence-based approaches, said Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, director of the state Department of Health. Alexander-Scott called the new initiative the type of community-based effort that officials had in mind when health equity zones were created. “The community is playing the leading role. That’s the real heart of health equity zones,” she said.
Lou Giancola, South County Health chief executive officer, said the initiative will be similar to public health initiatives that helped reduce the rate of smoking and others that targeted drunk driving. “Bringing attention to a problem by mobilizing resources and having the will and the perseverance to attack the problem,” he said.
U.S. Rep. James Langevin, D-2nd District, who has been a quadriplegic since the age of 16, said he hoped the funding and the initiative would help those with mental illness to live the type of life he said he is able to live through the use of adaptive equipment, wheelchairs and other resources.
“Every day there are people in this country who are struggling with mental health issues, whether its severe depression or alcohol or substance abuse, and they don’t have those types of resources and yet if the resources are there we can help people to deal with these problems and challenges they are dealing with and go and live very strong and independent lives. It is a tragedy in our community when someone who is struggling so much and has lost hope and doesn’t know where to turn chooses suicide,” Langevin said.
Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the nation, said U.S. Sen. Jack Reed. “This is a profound problem. We have to deal with it and we have to deal with it aggressively,” Reed said.
A critical piece of the new initiative is acknowledging that those in need of services may not be in a position to seek them out independently, said U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.
“When somebody is in the kind of distress that leads to suicide...they can’t be the the ones who have to be the experts in finding out where the touch point is that will get them services,” Whitehouse said. “We’ve got to make sure that wherever they touch our heath care network they’re recognized, they’re welcomed, they’re brought in and they are provided the help they need.”