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County mental and public health officials hold workshops on issue



Are you thinking about suicide?

It's a difficult question to ask, but while many people are uncomfortable asking if a friend or loved one is thinking about harming themselves, the answer could make the difference between life and death.

For one week in August, the Washington County Department of Health and Human Services partnered with other local and national public and mental health agencies to offer four workshops to public health and safety professionals that specifically addressed how to talk about suicide and access to lethal means — such as firearms and medications — and looked at ways to reduce access to those means during mental health crises.

The workshops, led by Elaine Frank, co-creator of Counseling on Access to Lethal Means and director of CALM at the Injury Prevention Center at Children's Hospital at Dartmouth-Hitchcock in New Hampshire, were an extension of a regional partnership between Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties to highlight awareness and education, and to encourage people to be proactive in seeking assistance in times of crisis.

"We're so connected that county lines are arbitrary. It's going to take us all working together," said Meghan Crane, suicide prevention coordinator for Washington County Public Health. "A person having a suicidal crisis won't differentiate what county they're in."

Oregon has the eighth highest suicide rate in the country. About 77 deaths occur in Washington County every year, — 49 percent of which are completed with firearms.

While national statistics place white males over 45 years old most at risk, it's a leading cause of death for Oregon youth age 15 to 24 and Oregon veterans under 45, a population for whom suicide is already a known threat, Crane said.

An online public awareness campaign highlighting the deaths of veterans by suicide is making its rounds on social media currently, asking people to promote awareness by performing 22 pushups per day for 22 days — an homage to the claim that roughly 22 servicemen and women die by suicide daily.

"Unfortunately, almost everyone has a suicide story," Crane said. "It impacts a lot of people, but it's not something we talk about that much."

More than 120 people from the Portland metro region, as well as Jackson and Josephine counties, attended the classes — including 50 people who received additional training so they could return home and provide CALM training to their respective agencies and/or communities.

Most of the attendees responded positively, Crane said.

"It seemed to create a forum for them to continue the conversation and provide some mechanism to collaborate," she said. "We live in a very complex health care system … so we're always looking for ways to improve how information gets from one group to another."

"It helps broaden our perspective for coming up with a viable safety plan," said Washington County Sheriff's Deputy Tyler Whitely, who attended the August workshops.

For Whitely, the workshops helped dispel misconceptions held by the public regarding how law enforcement handles suicide prevention, particularly when it involves handing over firearms.

"The general impression of civilian workers is that if a firearm is turned over to the police, you won't get it back," Whitely said. "That's just not true."

Typically, he said, police issue receipts to recover the weapon after the crisis has passed.

Crane, Frank and Whitely all put emphasis on the point that suicide prevention should not be conflated with gun control.

"We have data that shows people who get trained in CALM are more likely to identify firearms as a means," Frank said. "But this is not in anyway an anti-gun message. This is an anti-suicide message."

Worldwide, reducing access to certain means for suicide invariably reduces death rates related to those means, though it may not affect overall suicide attempt rates.

"For this kind of educational approach, it's hard to measure," Frank said. "What I want to see 5 or 10 years from now is if we made a difference."

To take the CALM training online, visit www.sprc.org/resources-programs/calm-counseling-access-lethal-means.

For more information on suicide prevention or how to help, visit gettrainedtohelp.com, or call the county's mental health crisis hotline at 503-291-9111 to seek suicide prevention assistance.

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