The Seward Phoenix Log - News of the Eastern Kenai Peninsula since 1966

By Heidi Zemach
For The LOG 

Suicide prevention gains traction

 

Heidi Zemach | For The LOG

Deb Bond, at work at the Seward Boys & Girls Club, has a framed photo of her son Jeff Lee Bond, on her desk, a daily reminder of the important work she is doing for community children.

Seward community members, the school community, clergy, police, and mental and behavioral health workers came together in the aftermath of the recent deaths of two local teenagers, and are continuing to discuss what the community as a whole can do to better address the issue of suicide prevention.

The deaths have galvanized a broader community awareness to the issues of suicide prevention, and mental health that he has worked with for 20 years said Craig Williamson, behavioral health director at SeaView Community Services. They have a pretty outstanding prevention program within SeaView, which works well with the schools during times of crisis, and with the Seward Prevention Coalition, Seward Wellness Coalition and the ministerial association, he said. "The problem right now is to get people to come together. We want to stress that SeaView can't do this by themselves. There has to be community buy in. And coordination on the community level, I believe, is coming to pass."

Several organizations have been examining themselves, and how they could improve their own training and effectiveness, and better coordinate with other services, Williamson said. SeaView has learned that its 24-hour crisis line has not been as widely distributed as it should have been. Nor has the state's Helpline, which a Seward Prevention action group has sprung up to promote locally.

Many local mental and behavioral health service providers helped fill up a suicide prevention training, run by the Alaska Gatekeeper program on Saturday, Feb. 15 at AVTEC. It's an excellent suicide prevention training program, but many more people in the community have expressed interest in taking it, or similar trainings, Williamson said. The Alaska Division of Behavioral Health is planning to offer it again in the near future.

The schools are looking at the "Signs of Suicide" program, and also the Gatekeeper trainings, and are looking into state grant-funded projects on topics such as suicide prevention, bullying, drugs and alcohol prevention.

"It has to be part of the culture," Williamson said, and the more people in the community that can be trained to respond, including store clerks and taxi cab drivers, the better.

"Suicide is one of the leading causes of preventable deaths in our nation today," said former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher. The main message of those already involved in prevention efforts is that there is hope, and there is help.

Sadly, open discussions about suicide and mental health issues remain taboo in our society, and people who could be helped often fall through the cracks, Williamson said.

The biggest myth we have about suicide, is that discussing it with an individual will increase the chances that they will take their life. In fact, research shows the opposite. Allowing someone to talk with a caring person about their plans, and their troubles, can often help prevent a suicide. It actually may relieve the tension that they have bottled up, and the interchange can result in connecting them with people who can help, Williamson said.

Adolescents, and pre-adolescents can be particularly vulnerable to things like bullying and insults to their image among their peers, as they don't have as many coping mechanisms as adults do, he said. Science now shows that our brains aren't fully formed up till age 22, so young people are bigger risk takers, and often make impulsive decisions, without fully thinking through their actions.

"My heart was broken into a million pieces," Deb Bond, a longtime Seward resident who lost her 16-year old son Jeffrey Lee Bond to suicide in 2006. "I was in a black hole for eight years." She believes Jeff might still walk the planet had he received the right kind of help he needed from someone he could trust.

Soon after Jeff's death, Bond educated herself about suicide, she become an Alaska Gatekeeper and began speaking to local community groups, high school health classes, and teachers about prevention. She would like to be able to do so again. She worked with the Alaska Suicide Prevention Coalition and Alaska Association of Student Governments to lobby to establish the state-mandated requirement that all teachers and classified staff receive two hours of suicide prevention training per year, which was enacted in 2002. She's also a regional board member of the Suicide Prevention Council.

Gatekeepers follow a simple educational program that teaches ordinary citizens how to recognize the signs of a mental health emergency, intervene, and get a person at risk the help that they need. They can be are anyone in the community in a position to recognize the warning signs that someone may be contemplating suicide: parents, friends, neighbors, teachers, ministers, doctors, store clerks or firefighters.

Although it remains difficult, Bond regularly visits with newly grieving families and spouses, feels their pain, and offers them a sympathetic ear and some of the information that she has learned about suicide over the years. She tries to be the best mentor she can to the adolescents she gets to know while taking her lunches at the middle school, and while overseeing the Seward Boys & Girls Club, an afterschool program. In this respect, being there for children, and bolstering their self-confidence, everyone can play a part, she said.

Accepting responsibility for the issue of suicide prevention, and taking ownership of the problem within one's own community can help be part of the solution, said Eric Morrison, staff assistant to the Alaska Suicide Prevention Coalition, and is their top goal. He has been working closely on the issue with interested members of the Seward community.

More than 25 percent of Alaskan youth reported feeling hopelessness and sadness for a constant period of greater than two weeks during the previous year, (possible signs indicating the beginning of clinical depression), and almost one out of seven seriously considered suicide, according to a Youth Risk Behavioral Survey conducted by the Center for Disease Control in 2007-08. One out of every 12 Alaskan respondents attempted suicide.

Yet suicide rates among all age groups generally are remaining steady in Alaska, except for a slight uptick over the last 5 -7 years, which he believes may be associated with the state's veterans, said James Gallanos, Suicide Prevention Coordinator with the Alaska Department of Behavioral Health.

Here on the Kenai Peninsula, the most recent figures show 66 residents took their lives between 2007-2011, including 49 males and 17 females. In Alaska, 761 residents took their lives over the same period, according to the Alaska Bureau of Vital Statistics.

For information about the Alaska Gatekeeper Training contact Eric Boyer at eric@alaskachd.org or 907-264-6257 or James Gallanos, MSW, DHSS, 907-465-8536.

 

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