Oregon targets troubled teens in suicide prevention effort

Volunteers and Oregon health officials are working to help teenagers at risk of committing suicide, the second leading cause of death for the state’s younger population.

Though overall state teen suicide numbers have varied in the past decade and largely hover around the national average, eight counties have teen suicides higher than the national average. And officials are hoping a new grant and some dedicated volunteers will help change that.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death for Oregonians between the ages of 15 and 34, and Oregon’s overall suicide rate has been higher than the national average for more than a decade.

Teen suicide rates in Jackson, Josephine, Deschutes, Benton, Linn, Umatilla, Washington and Klamath counties were higher than the national average of 10.9 deaths for every 100,000 people in 2012.

Talking about suicide and how to prevent it is a focal point for prevention, officials said. Since April 2013, Samaritan Health Services has trained about 350 people in Linn and Benton counties, from teachers to police to community members in a program called Youth Mental Health First Aid. 

“We just felt that there was a need to create some public awareness in regards to mental health,” volunteer Barbara Mullins said. “I would hope that we can bring mental health out of the darkness to the light where people can feel more comfortable to talk about the problems that they’re having,”

Youth Mental Health First Aid

Youth Mental Health First Aid is an educational program developed in Australia in 2001. The course is for everyday people who might want to know how to help teenagers at risk of committing suicide.

The eight-hour course teaches community members how to identify warning signs of mental health problems in adolescents, builds an understanding of the importance of early intervention, and teaches individuals how to help a teen in crisis or experiencing a mental health challenge.

“You’re more likely to face in society someone with an emotional problem than you would with someone needing CPR,” Mullins said.

About 60 mental health and medical professionals have been trained across Oregon to teach the mental health first aid, along with more than 4,000 Oregonians, said Cherryl Ramirez, executive director of the Association of Oregon Community Mental Health Programs. 

Ramirez said the mental health training helps those who might be the first to encounter a person at risk of committing suicide. The training helps them know what to do before a professional can step in.

For example, it would help a teacher notice the warning signs, such as withdrawal, no social connection and doing poorly in school. And then they would know what to do, including asking the teenager if they have thought about ending their life.

The goal is to prevent a suicide or a terrible mass shooting, Ramirez said.

Targeted Help

In October, Oregon’s Health Division received a federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration grant that awards the state $736,000 a year for five years to improve suicide prevention services.

The state will focus on assisting those eight counties with training the public and mental health professionals and improving the coordination of mental health services.

Donna Noonan, youth suicide prevention coordinator for the Oregon Health Division, said one of the big focuses is linkages between services and making sure that hospitals, mental health agencies and others coordinate their efforts. That way if a teenager goes to the hospital for attempting to commit suicide then he or she would have help going forward.

“Often there’s no follow up,” Noonan said.

The grant programs include more training for mental health professionals. Noonan said Oregon does not require specific mental health training for suicide for mental health professionals.

“I think that’s shocking.”

In addition to the mental health first aid training, Washington County has embarked on the zero suicide effort and has established a Suicide Prevention Council.

“The vision of the Council is 'Zero is possible.' A growing body of research shows that we do not have to accept any suicides in our community. So we are supporting the National Suicide Prevention Strategy of eliminating suicide and its devastating effects right here in Washington County,” the county website states.

The theories behind why Oregon has high suicide rates varies from firearm ownership to seasonal depression to the fact that western states typically have higher rates.

“The truth is we really don’t know,” Noonan said.

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I'm wholly supportive of Samaritan sponsored Mental Healtth First Aid trainings and Barbara Mullins's efforts. I admire her leadership in this and other areas of healthcare and work collaboratively with her, Samaritan and Intercommunity Healthcare Network CCO. Please check the validity of the statement that Samaritan has trained 350+ in Linn/Benton since April 2013. It commenced in April 2014. 50-100 may have been trained by by Samaritan, including Samaritan staff. The rest were trained by LinnCounty Health Services. I have no "ownership" of MHFA, however I would like some share of the credit attributed to Samaritan for the work of my staff. 

Frank Moore