How Can We Support Our Family, Friends, or Neighbors who have Suicidal Thoughts?
Vermont suicide rates are alarming. According to the VT Suicide Prevention Center, “Vermonters have consistently died by suicide at a rate more than 30% higher than the national average over the past 15 years.” Suicide is the 8th leading cause of death in the State (as compared to the 10th leading cause for the U.S.) and the 2nd leading cause of death for Vermonters age 15-35. Our small state reported 117 suicides in 2020. In the most current data for 2021, 131 Vermonters took their own life from January – November. This translates into 2-3 deaths by suicide each week.
Despite these tragic statistics, suicide strikes us the hardest when it’s one of our own loved ones who takes their life, leaving behind a grieving spouse, parent, child, friend, and/or neighbor. We’re left with the devastating loss and many questions without answers: What brought them to this point? Why didn’t we see this coming? If only we had done something different, could this have been prevented? How could I have helped them? However, with the finality of suicide, there’s no going back. No chance to offer additional support or connection. Just an emptiness left inside us that will never go away.
According to Alison Krompf, Deputy Commissioner of the Vermont Department of Mental Health (DMH), “Vermont is regularly rated one of the healthiest states in the nation, and yet our rate of suicide is higher than the national average and climbing. It is time that we hold our State’s mental wellbeing to the same standard and develop more holistic approaches to health and wellness that can address this growing issue.”
In recent years, Vermont has made a concerted effort to address its rising suicide rate through its Zero Suicide initiative. Zero Suicide was founded in 2012 based on the belief that suicide deaths are preventable through health or behavioral health care services.
Krompf states, “The Department of Mental Health sees suicide prevention as a major priority, and we support Zero Suicide as the way to get there. Effective Zero Suicide implementation in Vermont will promote the skill and awareness necessary across individuals, communities, providers, and systems to reduce suicide deaths in our state.”
The Zero Suicide model is based on 7 key elements:
Leaders of an organization commit to preventing suicide
Staff are trained in Zero Suicide
Clients/patients are assessed for suicide risk
A plan is developed with those having suicidal thoughts
Evidence based practices are used to help reduce suicidal thoughts
The results are measured
Transitional care services are provided
HCRS Incorporates Peer Support Model
In southeastern Vermont, Health Care & Rehabilitation Services (HCRS), the community mental health agency serving Windsor and Windham counties, has taken Zero Suicide a step further. Working with the Wildflower Alliance, a grassroots peer support, advocacy, and training organization in Massachusetts, HCRS is striving to provide a person-centered approach to supporting individuals who have suicidal thoughts.
According to Sera Davidow, Executive Director of the Wildflower Alliance, “I am excited about the opportunity to work with HCRS; this is the first time we’ve simultaneously been asked to train organization-wide and across all divisions while also working with the leadership to update policies and procedures, which really allows staff to put the training to use.”
Wildflower Alliance offers training in how to support individuals experiencing suicidal thoughts based on the experience of people who have and/or had suicidal thoughts and what most supported them. In addition, they promote considering the role of the provider and how to reduce power imbalances with the person they are serving, as another step towards reducing suicide risk. Wildflower Alliance encourages working with the individual to understand what may have triggered their suicidal thoughts, help them to regain a feeling of connection, and allow them to remain in control of what they receive for services. Conversations with a person experiencing suicidal thoughts focus on offering validation, curiosity, vulnerability, and community.
HCRS began a training initiative with the Wildflower Alliance in 2021 with the goal of training their Adult Services, Children, Youth, & Family Services, and Developmental Services staff to provide supports from this enlightened approach. Jennifer Smith, Director of HCRS’ Children, Youth, & Families Division, states, “We appreciate Wildflower Alliance’s non-carceral approach and their emphasis on connection to others as a critical component of effective intervention.”
Risk Factors for Suicide
Although death by suicide could impact anyone, there are numerous risk factors to be aware of, including: a family history of suicide, personal history of suicide attempts, a mental health diagnosis, feelings of hopelessness or isolation, a history of substance use, and physical health issues. Suicide is also 3.6 times more common in men than women.
Certain populations are also more at risk including those who identify at LGBT and BIPOC individuals as well as people with a disability, those who have served in the U.S. armed forces, and those with little to no social or emotional support.
Where to Turn for Help
If you or someone you know is experiencing thoughts of suicide, don’t wait to ask for help. Vermont’s community mental health agencies located across the State, are here to help. For the agency closest to you, visit the Vermont Care Partners’ website at: https://vermontcarepartners.org/agencies/
For individuals in Windsor and Windham counties, you may contact HCRS’ 24/7 Mental Health Crisis Line toll-free at 1-800-622-4235 or visit our website at www.hcrs.org.
For more information about suicide awareness and prevention, please visit the Vermont Suicide Prevention Center at www.vtspc.org or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org or by calling 1-800-273-8255. If you are a Veteran, call 1-800 – 273-8255 and Press 1. You can also use the Crisis Text Line by texting VT to 741741, and you will be connected with a live, trained counselor quickly. (learn more: www.crisistextline.org)
Founded in 1967, HCRS is a non-profit, community mental health agency serving Vermonters in Windham and Windsor counties. HCRS serves 4,000 individuals every year through its mental health, substance abuse, and developmental disabilities programs. The Agency provides holistic care for clients, supporting them with employment, housing, transportation, and other social service needs. Visit http://www.hcrs.org for more information.
This article is part of a collaboration produced by members of Vermont Care Partners. Vermont Care Partners is a statewide network of sixteen non-profit, community-based agencies providing mental health, substance use, and intellectual and developmental disability support.