Health

Wednesday, May 28 2014 06:22 PM

County leads effort to prevent suicide

BY COURTENAY EDELHART Californian staff writer cedelhart@bakersfield.com

Middle-aged men, veterans and the elderly are among key demographic groups people working to prevent suicide need to do a better job of reaching, a group of mental health advocates concluded Wednesday.

About 40 social workers, counselors, educators and others had turned out for the inaugural Suicide Prevention Advisory & Resource Council meeting, the first of what organizers hope will be a quarterly gathering of local professionals studying ways to keep people from taking their own lives.

Meghan Boaz Alvarez, a mental health unit supervisor for the county and director of the Kern County Mental Health Crisis Line, said certain groups at high risk for suicide must be better educated about mental health resources and the county's 24-hour crisis hotline.

"One 15-minute call might really make a difference for somebody who really needs someone right then," she said.

The national suicide rate is 12.4 for every 100,000 people, according to the American Association of Suicidology.

The rate is 20 for men and 5.2 for women. But although men are more likely to complete a suicide, women are three times more likely than men to attempt one.

People age 45 to 54 have the highest rate among age groups, followed by those age 85 and older.

About 20 veterans a day take their own lives in the United States.

The good news is that California's rate of 10.5 per 100,000 is among the lowest in the nation. Only six other states and the District of Columbia's are lower.

Alvarez attributes much of the progress in California to the 2004 passage of the Mental Health Services Act, a tax on high income earners that funds mental health initiatives across the state, including California's 10 crisis hotlines.

Kern is part of a four-county regional collaborative that shares information and best practices, along with San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura.

Leaders from each county meet quarterly. It's been really helpful to get ideas and feedback from nearby counties, Alvarez said, but she wasn't satisfied that there was enough local impact, so Kern officials organized a quarterly meeting just for Kern. The county also plans to issue a monthly newsletter for local participants.

There were 115 suicides in Kern County last year, up from 98 the year before, Alvarez said.

"Even one is too many," she said.

Calls to the local crisis line also have increased from 10,901 in 2010-11 to 22,517 in 2012-13.

Alvarez said that had more to do with successful outreach efforts to make the public aware of the hotline than the number of area residents who are suicidal.

After her presentation, participants brainstormed ways to target at-risk groups. They suggested training employees at nursing homes to recognize warning signs among the elderly, for instance, and presentations to service organizations such as the Elks and Rotary to reach middle-aged men.

Another person suggested training pediatric nurses and lactation consultants to get at women suffering from post partum depression.

After the meeting, participants such as social worker Jamy Garcia said the council was off to a good start.

She was motivated to come because she lost a client to suicide once.

"It was very shocking," she said. "There was no hint."

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