CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA. (WVIR) - The suicide rate is increasing in this country. From 1999 to 2017, the rate increased overall by 33-percent. The statistics are alarmingly clear, but the reasons are complex.
The landscape of mental healthcare in Virginia is changing, and the way society views mental illness is evolving, but slowly. People on the front lines agree: the first step to reducing the suicide rate is to break the silence.
Out of the Darkness walks began in this country in 2002 to erase a stigma that persists in 2019. People are coming together with a simple message: “It affects every family, and it’s something we have to address head-on,” Senator Creigh Deeds said.
The senator lost his son Gus to suicide in 2013. Deeds believes society needs a change of attitude: “Mental illnesses are so complex. You know, you would like for there to be an even playing field. People with cancer, people with heart disease, people with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, they’re all entitled to some equal dignity,” he said.
At the Region Ten Community Services Board in Albemarle County, doctors and counselors say we need to recognize that mental illness or emotional crisis can be fatal.
"Just like we have diseases of other organs in the body or injuries to other parts of the body, it’s a disease of the brain,” Doctor David Moody said. “You have a disease of the brain that makes you depressed and hopeless, and you can’t see options or choices for yourself, then people are left to the worst option, which is suicide.”
Mary Feamster is a counselor, and believes indirectly asking the one hard question: “Are you feeling suicidal? Are you thinking about killing yourself? So if you’re worried about somebody, it’s perfectly OK to ask. You’ll never put the idea in somebody’s mind,” she said.
“I think it’s really important to ask that question directly,” Director of Emergency Management Curt Gleason said. “And if someone that you care about is feeling like they’re a burden to you, or a burden to others, that can be important to ask them if they’re thinking about it, if they’re considering ending their life.”
“You know, we’ve got to do the best we can to defeat the stigma. There’s a stigma around mental health that prevents people from getting the help they need,” Deeds said.
"It needs to not be a secret. It needs to not be hidden. Come out from the background, and be embraced as another something that anyone can have to deal with,” Dr. Moody said.
No stigma needed here. Just an understanding, if we are going to save lives, we all have to come out of the darkness.
Information for parents and children can be found at the Dougy Center: The National Center for Grieving Children and Families, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: Children, Teens and Suicide Loss, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: I’ve Lost Someone, and Suicide Prevention Resource Center: Programs and Resources.
Legislators are also pushing a platform called STEP (System Transformation, Excellence and Performance) Virginia. The program is focused on providing a uniform set of required services, consistent quality measures, and improved oversight in all commonwealth communities.
STEP Virginia is ongoing and will take a few years to fully implement.
Here are the nuts and bolts of the plan:
- Improve access, increase quality, build consistency and strengthen accountability across the commonwealth’s public behavioral health system.
- Services should foster wellness for people with behavioral health disorders in everyday life to prevent crises before they arise.
- Reduce admissions to state and private hospitals.
- Decrease emergency room visits.
- Lower the number of people with behavioral health disorders who get involved with the criminal justice system.
Then-Governor Terry McAuliffe and the General Assembly set STEP Virginia in motion with nearly $9 million in 2017. This allowed an initial group of community services boards to put in place “same-day access.” This means if a person calls or appears at a CSB, like Region Ten, someone will assess them that day instead of possibly making them wait weeks for an appointment.
The General Assembly also required mental healthcare workers to put the remainder of STEP Virginia services in place over the next few years with lawmakers to allocate funding in the coming years.
- Implement same-day access in the rest of the community service boards.
- Put primary care screening in place. For example, if somebody needs help with a behavioral health disorder, they also get primary care checks like a blood pressure measurement.
- Make sure all community service boards have tight links to medical providers.
This timely access to mental healthcare coupled with medical screenings is only the beginning.
The final focus will be on quality services that are consistent across the state, and accountability across service boards.