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Suicide Up For Discussion Again In Salem

A statue outside the Oregon Capitol. | ALEX VISSER/THE LUND REPORT
March 6, 2019

Lawmakers considered two more bills this week designed to prevent the death of younger Oregonians -- a major problem in the state.

Senate Bill 707 would establish an advisory committee of community members, state experts and nonprofit professionals to recommend regulatory changes to prevent the suicide of young people. A group currently exists that propelled many of the bills this session aimed at preventing suicide. But it could be disbanded with a change in leadership. The bill would enshrine the committee in statute, giving it official heft and ensuring its longevity.

“We’ve never had a body like that that brought all these stakeholders together to focus on the youth suicide problem,” said David Westbrook, chief operating officer for Lines for Life, a nonprofit that aims to prevent substance abuse and suicide.

The committee would be responsible for holding the state accountable for solving Oregon’s youth suicide problem. Self-inflicted death is the second leading cause of fatalities among Oregonians aged 10 to 24, according to the Oregon Health Authority.

The second bill, Senate Bill 918, directs the local mental health officials to tell educators, juvenile authorities, drug and alcohol treatment providers and others about a suicide. The idea is that those professionals, in turn, will work to prevent any more suicides among young people who might be tempted to follow suit.

Youth suicides tend to come in clusters, Westbrook said. If professionals know about a suicide they can bring in grief counselors and take other actions to prevent a cascading effect.

“The sooner that you’re able to get in with resources to a community that’s been affected by suicide the better able that community is to prevent future suicides,” Westbrook said.

The bill is a companion to Senate Bill 485 which directs schools to report a suicide to the Oregon Health Authority within a week to enable public officials to coordinate a response.

Both bills were discussed in a public hearing in the Senate human services committee on Tuesday. Committee Chair Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, is the chief sponsor of both bills.

They’re part of a new concerted effort by the state to tackle Oregon’s suicide rate, which has been higher than the national average for decades. Also this year, Gov. Kate Brown included $13 million in her budget

Also Tuesday, the Senate unanimously passed Senate Bill 52, also known as Adi’s Act, which requires that school districts to develop suicide prevention plans.

The Alliance to Prevent Suicide, a statewide group with 55 members that recommends policy initiatives to the Oregon Health Authority and oversees the implementation of the Youth Suicide Intervention and Prevention Plan, inspired Senate Bill 707. As written, the bill would create a committee of 17 members, including survivors of suicide attempts, friends and family of suicide victims, Oregonians younger than 21 and experts from state agencies including the Oregon Health Authority and the Department of Education.

Committee members, who would not be paid, would meet every three months to develop suicide prevention recommendations for the Legislature and the health authority. Annette Marcus, suicide prevention liaison for the alliance, said during the hearing that bringing together suicide experts and those with personal experiences is necessary if the state wants to prevent more deaths.

“There is no disagreement that this is a serious issue in our state,” she said. “To solve it, we really need to bring people together.”

The intent of Senate Bill 918 is to open communication channels that have proved problematic in the past. Todd Noble, Linn County’s health administrator, testified that health authorities will sometimes find suspected suicide victims, but are blocked from telling educators because of existing privacy laws, and vice versa. If health authorities can immediately contact schools, Noble said, schools can reach out to friends of victims and intervene.

“This will improve the consistency of youth suicide reporting processes across the state and the timeliness of these reports,” he said. “Clear communication channels need to be in place so that all parties are informed and we can respond to community needs.”

Up next, the human services committee will decide whether to send the bills to the Senate floor.