Volunteer Steve Shaffer knows that the people who use emergency shelters on freezing nights need a warm meal and a place to sleep, first of all.
But he also sees that some of them may have deeper issues — stress, depression, mental disorders, substance abuse. Without help, they can become suicidal.
Shaffer, a 58-year-old investment banker from Eugene, has taken training to learn how to be that help. He thinks everybody else should, too.
“(Suicide) has touched everybody’s life, I’m sure,” Shaffer said. “The first thing you think about is, could I have recognized this coming on, could I have done something different?”
Faced with a high rate of suicide, county mental health experts want to train more people from all walks of life how to recognize and help those who are suicidal.
It’s like cardiopulmonary resuscitation, said Sandy Moses, Lane County’s suicide prevention coordinator. “The more people that know these basic skills, the more we can save lives,” she said.
The suicide rate in Lane County was 19.1 people per 100,000 in population in 2009, the most recent numbers available, according to the Oregon Public Health Division.
The county’s suicide rate was about the same as Oregon’s, which was 40 percent higher than nationally and on a rise that started in 2000.
There are more deaths due to suicide each year in Oregon than due to car crashes, the division said.
Identifying factors in the county that lead to suicide is the “question of the day,” Moses said. They include depression, mental illness, stress and access to firearms — and that’s where health officials are focusing efforts.
In 2006, the county began receiving federal suicide-prevention funding through the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act, named for former U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith’s 21-year-old son, who died by suicide in 2003.
The county is using the money to raise public awareness about suicide through traditional and social media and to dramatically increase prevention training sessions.
Since 2008, the county has more than doubled public trainings for suicide prevention and mental health. Last year, it held 21 sessions, some of them in schools, and 500 people attended, Moses said.
One of the biggest challenges to suicide is overcoming the stigma associated with suicidal thoughts and discussion of suicide.
Two-thirds of those who died by suicide showed warning signs to family and friends, according to the Lane County Prevention Program. But experts say it can be frightening to hear that someone wants to die, and that can lead to denial by people who might otherwise be able to help.
“We know suicide is a public health issue and we realize that … the public just is not aware of the risk factors, the warning signs, what all of us can do to help,” Moses said.
During a recent public training session at Lane Education Service District in west Eugene, Moses taught a group of social workers and others the basics of a program called QPR, which stands for question, persuade, refer. Trainees learned how to question someone who is considering suicide, persuade them to get help and then refer them to the appropriate resource.
In one role-play exercise, participants practiced asking one another whether they were considering suicide. The exercise is meant to ease the discomfort some people feel around even uttering the word “suicide,” especially with someone who is considering it, Moses said.
Trainee Claire Davis, a 54-year-old program supervisor with the Birth To Three parenting program, will share the training with the program’s parent educators who work with families.
Birth To Three families are often under significant stress, dealing with suicide risk factors that can include anxiety, postpartum depression, chemical dependency, money worries and childhood abuse, Davis said.
People don’t ask whether someone is considering suicide, she said, “because they don’t want the answer. I want to make sure that if we ask the question, we’re ready with what to say and what to do next.”
Youth especially can be susceptible to suicide.
Suicide is the second leading cause of injury death among Oregonians ages 10 to 24, after car crashes, Moses said. In a 2010 Oregon Student Wellness Survey, 9 percent of eighth-graders said they had attempted suicide in the past year.
Britni D’Eliso, a spiritual mentor with Hosea Youth Services of Eugene, said many youth served by the organization come from broken homes and consider suicide to be “an option.”
D’Eliso, 23, works with youth ages 16 to 22 who sometimes show the warnings signs for suicide — prior attempts, social isolation and depression, for example.
She took the training because she wants to be comfortable approaching an uncomfortable subject.
“It’s a taboo topic in our society,” D’Eliso said. “I think people are uncomfortable with death in general, so self-afflicting (death) is that much more extreme.”
SUICIDE By the Numbers
Suicide rate per 100,000 in population for:
- Lane County: 19.1 in 2009 (67 total)
- Oregon: 16.8 in 2009 (641 total)
- United States: 12.0 in 2009
- World: 16.0, varies by year depending on country
Note: Under Oregon law, deaths under the Death with Dignity Act, which allows terminally ill Oregonians to end their lives through the voluntary self-administration of lethal medications expressly prescribed by a physician for that purpose, are not considered suicides.
Source: Oregon Public Health Division
Lane County will provide training in suicide prevention and mental health first aid
Suicide Prevention: Free from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday at Lane Council of Governments, 859 Willamette St.; free from 10 a.m. to noon Feb. 10, Lane Education Service District, 1200 Highway 99N
Mental Health First Aid: 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Feb. 23-24, Lane ESD , $45 per person
Registration: To attend a training, register at http://preventionlane.eventbrite.com. Community groups, faith communities, schools and others can email prevention coordinator Sandy Moses to schedule a training at Sandy.Moses@co.lane.or.us. For further information, call 541-682-3650, email Sandy Moses, or visit http://www.preventionlane.org.
Need Help? Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-TALK (8255)