By CATHY DYSON THE FREE SPEAR STAR
Too often after a suicide, Michelle Wagaman hears the same four words from someone who knew the victim: “If only I knew.
In her work with the Rappahannock Area Community Services Board, she helps train people on how to recognize a potential crisis and guide someone through the steps to avoid tragedy.
“What I find is that a lot of people won’t directly ask, ‘Are you having suicidal thoughts?’ because the answer scares them,” the director of prevention services said. “Once you ask the question and you have the answer, you have to answer.”
Having the education and comfort level to bring up the scary subject can help prevent deaths by suicide – and Wagaman and other health officials are seeing an increase in requests for such training as well as other health programs. mental health awareness.
The request comes as the Fredericksburg area, along with the rest of the state and nation, grapples with the continued fallout from the pandemic and other issues that have emerged in its wake.
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Even before the pandemic, someone committed suicide every eight hours in Virginia, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. A report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that suicide rates fell slightly nationwide in the first months of the pandemic – and some experts attributed this to the way people sometimes rise to face a challenge in the face of adversity.
But as this adversity has dragged on for three years and exposed other systemic issues, health officials are sounding the alarm about the growing need for mental health services, including suicide prevention classes.
More than half of people participating in the 2022 Community Health Assessment for the Fredericksburg area rated mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, stress and suicide, as the most common health issue. important that the region faces.
The Virginia Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics recently highlighted trends that “paint an alarming picture” of mental health in children and adolescents. In 2020, mental health visits to emergency departments increased by 24% for children aged 5 to 11 and by 31% for those aged 12 to 17 compared to the previous year.
Suspected suicide attempts that resulted in emergency room visits increased by more than 50% among girls aged 12 to 17 nationwide in early 2021 compared to the year before the pandemic.
“Many pediatricians like me provide mental health care, including prescribing medications for depression and anxiety that would normally be provided by psychiatrists,” said Dr. Michael Martin, president of the National Pediatrics Section. “What else can we do when a child and their family are in crisis and there is no one else available to care for them for weeks or even months?
‘WAYS TO GET HELP’
Local officials are seeing similar trends in service requests.
The RACSB trained 600 people throughout the Fredericksburg area in mental health first aid — how to recognize various crises, including potential suicide — during the exercise that ended June 30. This represented a 43% increase from fiscal year 2019, the last year before the pandemic.
For the first time since COVID-19 hit the scene, the RACSB will be offering ASIST, an intensive two-day course called Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training later this month and again in November. and December. The training is free and includes lunch, but participants must commit to both days.
ASIST will be held from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. July 21-22 at the River Club, 10825 Tidewater Trail, Spotsylvania County. More information is available at email@example.com and registration at bit.ly/ASISTregistration.
The RACSB also continues to offer its one-day program, Mental Health First Aid, to local businesses, police officers, individuals and local governments. In early 2021, the agency partnered with Stafford County to provide training to 80 county employees under the “Stafford CARES” program.
Signs with emergency numbers and the encouragement that “you are not alone” were posted in parking lots and buildings across the county, said Donna S. Krauss, deputy county administrator.
“We recognized that there was an increase in suicide in our community,” she said, “and we wanted people to know that there were services and ways to get help. if they needed help.”
Krauss heard many comments from employees about how the training helped them be more aware of their own personal issues — and when they might feel overwhelmed — as well as what others were facing at work. , whether it’s colleagues or people who have done it. business in county buildings.
“It really demonstrates that no matter where you are in government, no matter what your role, the impact you can have on our community can be huge,” she said.
Wagaman would like mental health first aid to become as familiar to the public as CPR training. Additionally, the RACSB is preparing to launch a three-hour course called safeTALK on suicide alertness. More information is available from Wagaman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
THE CRISIS IS ‘HERE NOW’
Mental Health of America in Fredericksburg has seen a similar increase in the number of people seeking professional help, said Barb Barlow, executive director. Her agency maintains a list of local providers, their availability and insurance requirements and shares this information through her helpline. The service is available online at mhafred.org/helpline and at 540/371-2704, weekdays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Based on current activity, Barlow expects helpline workers to answer calls from 2,000 people this year who need help finding a therapist or psychiatrist. But sharing names and numbers from a directory won’t be the extent of the help offered.
There has been a shortage of mental health providers in Fredericksburg — and much of Virginia — for decades, and that’s why the agency created the HelpLine, to provide an up-to-date list of available people, where and what services they provide.
But because more people have recognized the need for help, those trying to book appointments are seeing wait times of up to six months, Barlow said.
The helpline team regularly checks people waiting to be seen by a professional and Barlow expects them to make 10,000 calls this year.
If people have suicidal thoughts — known as suicidal ideation in mental health circles — they are immediately put through to the RACSB’s 24-hour emergency services line at 540/373-6876.
“The stigma around mental health is going down as a result of the pandemic, which is a good thing, and people are saying they want help,” Barlow said, noting that there is no just not enough providers to take care of them all. “People talk about the crisis on the road, but it’s here now.”
Mental Health America of Fredericksburg is training more people to serve as peer-to-peer counselors in communities. And it offers free suicide prevention classes in all locations in Planning District 16, which includes Fredericksburg and Caroline, King George, Spotsylvania, and Stafford counties, but not all jurisdictions include the classes in their schedule. Barlow said.
The training can help someone recognize if a teenager is dealing with “typical teenage angst or something else is going on,” Wagaman said. Additionally, she said, trained individuals might be able to spot signs of crisis and connect people to needed resources.
They also learn the value of reassurance, “that suicidal thoughts are common but we don’t have to act on them and there are resources available,” she said.
Ivy Lee, who works with RACSB’s Healthy Families, said she has been constantly checking in with friends and family members since completing ASIST training in March 2020. Within a week, she saw a young man at the YMCA who sounded “super, super sad” and she asked if he was okay. When he said he was fine, she set up his training and asked if there was an adult — a parent or a trainer — he could check in with later.
Lee said she does the same with her family and friends, making sure they are okay and have someone to talk to, if needed. She’s always been the kind of person who listens to others, but the training has opened her eyes to the point “now I really can’t walk past” someone who is obviously in pain.
“There are a lot of tough situations happening these days,” she said.