Greenwich increases efforts to reduce suicides
By Ken Borsuk
Updated 8:27 pm EDT, Monday, July 9, 2018
GREENWICH — When people suffer from mental illness and begin to think about taking their own life, they often feel as if they have no place to turn.
The Greenwich Department of Human Services wants them to know that is not the case. The department is increasing its focus on mental illness and suicide prevention, and ramping up education and outreach efforts, working with the Greenwich Police Department, Greenwich Hospital, local schools and non-profits to help people of all ages. The goal is to make sure people know there is help for them and they shouldn’t be ashamed of having to seek it out.
“We need to get the word out that Human Services is here to help connect with the right resources, which is not easy to do,” Patsy Schumacher, case manager for the Department of Human Services, said. “We can be navigators to get people the help they need.”
Countering the frequency of suicide is a challenge for the entire community, including police, doctors, social service providers and friends and family of those suffering with suicidal thoughts.
“You need the whole population to have an understanding that suicide is a real issue and that if you see someone that is having a difficult time, you have to intervene,” said George O’Loughlin, the Department of Human Services director of case management. “Too many of us see loved ones involved in things in their lives that are tremendously stressful and there’s an attitude of, ‘Oh they’ll get over it.’ And when there is a suicide they’re left thinking they could have done something … This is a real thing. It could happen to your best friend and you can do something.”
Part of the effort will be to set up “Question, Persuade, Refer” training for people 16 and older, which teaches about warning signs, methods of intervention and referral options. Schuamcher is hoping to have the training offered in Greenwich within the next month or so.
“I think where our department can be effective is as a bully pulpit for establishing townwide policies,” said Commissioner of Human Services Alan Barry. “We’ve done that with the achievement gap. We’ve done that with substance abuse. I think this is another significant area where the department can take a leadership role in establishing townwide policies. How do we go about developing better education and community programming to make this more available for the public?”
The problem of suicide is growing. Barry cited a new federal Centers for Disease Control study which found a 30 percent increase in suicides around the country, across all age groups, from 1999 to 2015.
“I can say it’s psychological, it’s biological, it’s environmental and I think part of it has to do with stress, especially during the recession,” Barry said. “When people are losing their jobs, when they’re being evicted and when they’re having personal issues it all adds up to increases of suicides. When there are times of greater unemployment or economic upheaval, you always see this increase in suicides.”
What stands out about the CDC study, Barry said, is that 46 percent of suicides are by people with recognized mental illness, which means 54 percent of suicides are by people with no known record of mental illness. To Barry that means there are many sources of stress out there that can combine to make people feel they have no other choice.
The local effort will require cooperation among the Department of Human Services and other key players including the Greenwich Police Department, Greenwich Hospital, Greenwich Emergency Medical Services, the schools and local mental health providers such as the Child Guidance Center and Family Centers, Barry said.
The call to action was prompted, he said, by Greenwich Time coverage of what is known as “suicide by cop” in which someone tries to provoke a confrontation with police with the ultimate goal of being shot dead by them. In March, Greenwich police encountered two such incidents, both of which ended without injuries, and the police began highlighting the need for people to be more aware of mental health resources available in the community.
Barry cited statistics shared by the police in March which showed 17 suicide attempts in town over the previous year and four people who had killed themselves. Additionally the GPD responded to 173 cases of emotionally distressed people who required police intervention.
“I wanted our department to be more involved and become more proactive,” Barry said. “We worked with the police to see what we could be doing and Chief (James) Heavey arranged it for (Schumacher) to go and speak to all of the officers about mental health. He wants more of his (officers) to get trained in crisis intervention, which is really important.”
Police officers have been given cards to hand out with the number for the Department of Human Services (203-622-3800), which is open weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.; the United Way of Connecticut’s 24 hour hotline (1-800-203-1234); and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (1-800-273-8255). The card also urges people in crisis to call 911 or 211 for help and information.
Schumacher developed the card with the GPD and the hope is to have it be used at Greenwich Hospital as well.
“When people are seen for suicidal ideation we would like it if we would get called and contacted so we can provide follow up services,” Barry said. “I think a lot of times what happens is that for every one suicide there are nine non-fatal suicide attempts that end up in emergency departments. A lot of people are attempting and not completing and there needs to be follow up after that.”