Report details ‘significant’ suicide threat to Mesa County

Mesa County’s suicide rate has climbed to such heights that the authors of a new study consider it a “significant threat” to public health and are recommending a slew of systematic changes to reverse the trend.

Those changes, identified in the Suicide Prevention Efforts Health Impact Assessment, include improving tracking and monitoring people who have attempted suicide, enhancing counseling and education in schools and the workplace, and developing standardized screening and assessment of suicide risk factors.

Greg Rajnowski, a Health Department health planner who presented a summation of the 56-page report during a public forum on Wednesday, said the “significant threat” label is one typically reserved for chronic diseases such as obesity and heart disease that warrant action by the public health community.

“That’s really a sort of determination you make in environmental health when you have cumulated data where you say things have reached a certain threshold, something that will have a cumulative effect,” he said.

Mesa County’s troubling statistics are well-known to local mental-health experts. The county’s suicide rate in 2012 was nearly double Colorado’s rate and nearly triple that of the nation’s. Suicide was the seventh-leading cause of death in the county in 2012, a rate higher than diabetes. The number of residents who committed suicide here dropped from 47 in 2012 to 29 last year but still remains far above state and national averages. More than 1,000 Mesa County residents were hospitalized following suicide attempts between 2003 and 2012.

“We’re incurring costs as a health system that we’re not really able to absorb,” Rajnowski said.

Police contact

To reduce the number of suicide deaths and attempts and the costs associated with them, health officials need to do a better job of tracking and monitoring people who have attempted suicide.

The study says of the 168 suicide-related cases Mesa County law enforcement agencies dealt with in the first six months of 2013, more than 20 percent of those who attempted suicide had prior contact with police for exhibiting suicidal behavior. Of those who completed suicide in the first half of last year, 29 percent were known to law enforcement for suicidal behavior.

“Building community capacity to accurately, and with fidelity, track suicide attempts and deaths is a high priority in order to evaluate and prevent suicidal behavior,” the study says.

Stakeholders also need to engage in a community-wide effort to improve social support systems for males and females alike, with an emphasis on embedding counseling, coping skills and education in schools and businesses. The study says that effort should especially target low-income adolescent females.

The study says students and health care professionals assume on-campus counseling services are freely available in Mesa County. The reality, though, is that there is limited on-campus student health services and behavioral health is either contracted out to local providers or available through administrative means, rather than informal “drop-in” means, according to the study.

Those health care professionals who do see and treat patients at risk for suicide lack training in screening and assessing conditions like depression, anxiety and other factors that contribute to suicide or suicidal thoughts, the study says.

“Screening and intervention processes differ locally to such an extent that the medical community in general is unsure whether any agency, physical or behavioral health, is utilizing a standard or best practice screening or intervention tool,” the study says. “In addition, there is no standardized patient information set used for treatment referrals of those at-risk for and attempting suicide.”

Changing attitude

Another area the study says should be addressed is the treatment of drug addiction. The number of deaths in Mesa County due to prescription drug overdose has shot up from 13 in 2009 and 23 in 2012, and experts say the majority of suicidal patients struggle with substance abuse and need medical treatment prior to instituting behavioral change.

The study notes that there are options for immediate and long-term care but nothing in between. It recommends the establishment of a 60- to 90-day alternative treatment program for both adults and youths.

In spite of the county’s continuously high suicide rate, there are some medical practitioners in Mesa County who think “this isn’t that big of a deal,” said Kelli Kessell, the director of continuing medical education at St. Mary’s Hospital.

“We have to work on changing that attitude,” she said.

Need to talk to someone about suicide? This video gives tips about how to start that conversation.


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