Changing Minds, Changing Lives
Kenosha team bands together to prevent suicides
A man and a woman talked to each other in the break room while the coffee pot began to bubble and brew. The conversation turned to the coming weekend, and the man told the woman that he was going to a workshop at his church about how to intervene if he thought a relative, friend or stranger was contemplating suicide.
He said that if people understood that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem, the suicide rate would go down.
The man had no idea that the woman was planning to take her life that weekend. She decided not to, and later told the man that his words had motivated her to seek help.
For the man, it had been just another chat over coffee. For the woman, the conversation had been her lifeline.
In 2005 and 2006, Kenosha County residents and leaders realized that their community needed to provide better support for those considering suicide. During those years, the county reviewed injury data which placed suicide as a top concern, and also suffered a tragic bump in teen suicides.
“This issue really brought our group together to say this is something we need to focus on,” Debbie Rueber, Health Services Coordinator for the Kenosha County Division of Health, said. A diverse group, including the health department and mental health professionals among others, joined together to form the Kenosha County Suicide Prevention Coalition, which was funded by the Healthier Wisconsin Partnership Program in 2005 as part of an award that built injury prevention coalitions throughout Wisconsin.
The Medical College of Wisconsin has been a partner from the beginning. Amy Zosel, MD, MSCS, now serves as the representative of that partnership, bringing her expertise on adolescent prescription drug abuse along with experience in designing and evaluating community health strategies.
The coalition focuses its efforts on two of these strategies to prevent suicides. First, the coalition has implemented programs to restrict access to the common tools people use to harm themselves. Second, the coalition focuses on educating counselors, mental health and health care providers, and community members about the warning signs of suicide and how to effectively intervene through an evidence-based practice called Question, Persuade, Refer, or QPR.
“With self-harm, a lot of times people will make a rash decision,” Rueber said. ”Means restriction is about putting a speed bump in their way. It gives them extra time to think about it and for someone to find them before they have acted, so that there is a better chance of survival.”
The coalition has focused on firearms and poisonings. With help from the Charles E. Kubly Foundation, the coalition has distributed close to 18,000 cable gun locks in Kenosha County and throughout the state of Wisconsin. The lock prevents the gun from being fired and requires a key to be removed. The group also promotes the practice of better gun safety in the household.
“Our message is to store your firearms unloaded, locked up, and your ammunition stored separately,” Rueber said. “People sometimes balk at this. They want to protect themselves and say their kids don’t know where the gun is stored.”
“If the kids don’t already know,” she continued, “they will find out. If they can find their presents before their birthday, they can find the gun.”
For poisonings, the coalition focuses on collecting unused and expired medication to prevent overdoses.
“We have four medication drop boxes in Kenosha and we are hoping to add two more by the end of the year,” Rueber said. “Law enforcement personnel empty the drop boxes and sign the medication into evidence. Then, twice a year, we are able to dispose of it safely through the Drug Enforcement Agency.”
The Kenosha Suicide Prevention Coalition also focuses on education through workshops like the 2013 Clergy Summit.
“We were getting feedback that the clergy is one of the groups of people that would be there if members of the community either could not afford counseling or desired guidance from a spiritual leader,” Rueber said. “Clergy members felt that they were not well-equipped with information about mental health resources and what to look for in terms of suicide warning signs.”
The full-day event provided information from mental health experts about how to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness and what the clergy members should do when they see the warning signs of self-harm or suicide. One mother, whose child has a mental illness, told the story about how her church community rallied around her family and made them feel welcomed instead of stigmatized.
“We also had a panel discussion about how to talk to different groups, including school-age children,” Rueber said. “We have seen a decrease in teen suicides, and we discussed methods for keeping that number down and eliminating it altogether.”
Through education and means restriction, the coalition will continue to address suicides in Kenosha County while also providing guidance to suicide prevention efforts in other counties.
“I think our partnership is our greatest strength,” Rueber said. “People look at Kenosha and ask us for help because our partnership has made the community stronger.”
“Everyone has stepped forward and committed to addressing this pressing issue,” Rueber said. “And we are dedicated to getting people the help they need.”
For those who feel their life has gone overboard with no chance of a safe return, getting this help can be the lifeline that changes their mind. And a changed mind can lead to a changed life.