Island County project raises suicide, depression awareness

By Kyle Jensen

South Whidbey Record

COUPEVILLE — State grant money has paired a University of Washington-based suicide prevention program with Island County Public Health in an attempt to raise awareness about suicide and depression in Island County.

The program, called Forefront, is new to Island County; program representatives have already begun collaborating with the public health department for suicide prevention education, as well as with Island County Human Services and the Community Health Advisory Board. The collaboration means there will now be more resources available to help prevent suicide by supplying additional education, training and establishing focus groups.

A central piece of the plan deals with prevention work in schools. Part of the new initiative makes it mandatory for school administrators to have a plan for a crisis and the training to know how to deal with a potentially suicidal situation. Forefront Project Director Jennifer Barron said that the program aims to help schools through the planning process and offers support throughout. A large aspect of that help is in the form of Catherine VanWetter, Island County field director for Forefront.

“Through the grants, Forefront was able to hire a field coordinator for Island County, someone who lives in the county and knows about the resources,” Barron said in an email. “Catherine VanWetter’s goal through the grants is to help create comprehensive planning around suicide prevention.”

The suicide prevention program received two grants this year, one for $100,000 from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction and another for $50,000 from the Washington Women’s Foundation. The grants allowed Forefront to expand into three Washington counties. The counties were targeted because they have the highest suicide rates in recent years. They include Okanogan, Island and Stevens counties. The rates were determined using data collected between 2009 and 2013.

County suicide rates were measured by the number of people per 100,000 to die by suicide. Island County reported a rate of 20.4, while Okanogan had a rate of 25.2 and Stevens a rate of 16.2. That is compared to a statewide average of 14.5.

“I think it comes down to a lack of resources,” VanWetter said. “Part of it may have to do with having an older demographic and a large veteran population since those groups have higher rates, but I think resources are the bigger issue here.”

The issue lies in the disconnect in the processes of dealing with suicide prevention among police forces, the hospital and mental health commissions in Island County, according to VanWetter.

She says Forefront aims to fill the gaps in those areas by implementing a new community health plan.

“This new collaboration to lead the community health improvement program for depression and suicide is an important step for our community’s health,” said Laura Luginbill, assessment and healthy communities director for Island County Public Health, in an email. “The impact of poor mental health is significant and devastating — this group had an important task before them.”

Forefront representatives have lobbied for legislation in Olympia with some success. Earlier this year, Barron and other representatives advocated for House Bill 2793, which raises awareness and provides education for gun buyers and requires safe storage of guns for safer households. Educational pamphlets are provided at the point of sale, with gun owners also going over precautionary measures with the customer. The bill passed.

“Suicide is a preventable phenomenon,” VanWetter said. “How do we help towards prevention? Education. We’re not trying to come in and tell Island County to do things differently, we’re trying to be collaborative with the community.”

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