“Tommy and Timmy were best friends. They did everything together,” begins Tim Lentz, chief deputy of the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office. “But on Timmy’s 16th birthday, his best friend committed suicide. Timmy hadn’t even known his friend was fighting depression.”
After a pause, he adds, “I’m Timmy.”
Like many people, Tim had not talked much about his personal experience with suicide because of society’s “hush, hush” attitude toward the subject. But in 2010, Kevin Davis, then parish president, made an effort to change that mindset by initiating the St. Tammany Parish Suicide Prevention Support Program with the slogan “It’s OK to talk about it.”
That’s when Tim decided it was time to share his story with others. He hopes that by speaking out, others in the community will become aware of the warning signs of suicide as well as the high suicide rate in our parish. “There’s been a hole in my heart as a result [of Tommy’s death], so I know the effects of suicide,” he adds. “It’s the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about, but no one is immune to this. Every single day in St. Tammany parish, someone tries to kill himself.”
With 34 suicides in 2011 and 11 as of March 2012, St. Tammany Parish has one of the highest suicide rates in Louisiana. (In contrast, there were only six homicides in the parish in 2011, and one to date in 2012.) As St. Tammany’s suicide rate rose 30 percent from 2005 to 2010, Davis decided to take action.
In October 2010, members of the parish government met with other concerned leaders to determine a course of action. From this meeting, the St. Tammany Parish Suicide Prevention Support Program was born, with the goal of lowering the suicide rate by providing adequate resources to parish residents.
“Just as one single factor did not create today’s situation, one entity cannot solve it,” says Pat Brister, St. Tammany’s current parish president. “It will take many partners to return the necessary mental health services to our area.”
Currently, the St. Tammany Parish Suicide Prevention Support Program brings together representatives from many organizations, businesses and agencies who meet quarterly to discuss the most efficient and effective ways to reduce St. Tammany Parish’s high suicide rate and to provide resources for residents in need.
John Tobin, director of St. Tammany’s Department of Health and Human Services, was part of the suicide prevention task force from its inception. “At the first meeting, they decided they needed a single point of entry—one call,” he says. It was decided to use 2-1-1, which was already available. It is now the primary contact for all parish residents in need of counseling and resources for any crisis, including suicide.
The 2-1-1 information and referral line, currently funded by United Way, offers trained crisis-intervention and suicide-prevention specialists as well as multi-lingual counselors. These professionals are on call 24/7 to provide counseling and information about community resources. They can transfer callers directly to the appropriate 9-1-1 operators if necessary, and 9-1-1 operators throughout the parish can transfer callers to 2-1-1 when needed.
From October 2011 through March 2012, the 2-1-1 line in St. Tammany Parish fielded 1,648 calls, 29 percent of which were identified as “crisis/suicide calls.” Out of the 10 parishes served by 2-1-1, St. Tammany has the highest percentage of crisis calls, with Tangipahoa and Washington following close behind.
Besides giving free help to residents in need, the 2-1-1 line provides a valuable service to the law enforcement officers in the parish by fielding calls that would have otherwise gone to 9-1-1. In 2011, the sheriff’s department alone—which does not include the municipalities of Covington, Mandeville, Slidell, Madisonville, Pearl River, Folsom or Sun—responded to 543 suicide-attempt calls.
“Anytime someone dials 9-1-1, even if it was a mistake, my deputies are going, but some people really just need someone to talk to,” Tim Lentz says. “Many of the calls to 2-1-1 are calls that we don’t have to go to, but it still hasn’t slowed down. As of [late March], we have responded 127 times to attempted suicide calls in 2012.” (The numbers for the entire parish are even higher because the sheriff’s office only receives calls from unincorporated St. Tammany.)
“My men spend more time dealing with mental health calls than with traffic enforcement. It consumes us. We recognize the mental health crisis and we try to give our guys the best mental health training. But at the end of the day, we went to cop school. We’re not mental health professionals, but we are being forced into that role.”
Volunteers of America/Crisis Response Team
In response to the realization that most police officers are not properly equipped to handle suicide-attempt calls, the task force created a crisis action team through a partnership with the Volunteers of America. Using public health millage dollars, the parish government funded the Volunteers of America’s Crisis Response Team, which came online in August 2011.
“Our mission is two-fold,” says Rebecca Thees, Crisis Response project director. “When an officer calls, we respond immediately and go to the scene of an attempted suicide, and then we provide follow-up.” The team has five full-time and eight part-time licensed counselors who are on call 24/7 to respond to crises reported by the sheriff’s department.
Each deputy contacts the Crisis Response Team while on the way to the scene of an attempted suicide; at least one counselor meets the deputy and consults with everyone involved, including the individual in crisis and the family. The counselor evaluates the person’s condition and offers support and guidance. “Every situation is extremely different,” Rebecca says. “We are one of the first people they see, so we try to be a calming presence.”
After making an assessment and helping the deputy make a decision about the next step for the person, the counselor begins case management services, which are tailored to the individual’s needs. This last step is important because research shows that immediate support and a thorough follow-up will prevent subsequent attempts.
“We will stick with a family as long as we need to, helping them get resources and making sure they go to doctor’s appointments and counseling,” Rebecca says. “We try to get them long-term solutions to become stable and maintain that stability.” This dedication has paid off—none of the people who participated in the follow-up program with the Volunteers of America have made a second suicide attempt.
In the first three months of 2012, the response team was called out 144 times. Rebecca notes that this number only reflects the suicide attempts reported to the sheriff’s office, which does not include other police departments in the parish. “It’s obvious that the need far exceeds our ability to respond. It would be great if we could expand our services to provide assistance to all who have a mental health crisis.”
Nevertheless, the work that the Crisis Response Team has been able to do thus far has been invaluable. “They have been a godsend,” Tim says.
Mental Health Services
The severe lack of funds, facilities and professionals that are equipped to provide mental health services in St. Tammany posed a third problem to the original suicide prevention task force.
“The sad part about it is there’s just not enough help for these people, especially as there are more cutbacks for mental health in the state,” Tim says, adding that emergency rooms—where they have to bring many mentally ill residents—are not equipped to handle most cases.
While 2-1-1 and the Crisis Response Team were being set up, the parish took a more immediate course of action in January 2011 by funding two one-time grants totaling $75,000—one to St. Tammany Outreach for the Prevention of Suicide and one to the Mental Health Association of St. Tammany. These organizations used the funds to offer counseling to residents who could not afford it.
This was only a temporary solution, however. The parish government began working with the St. Tammany Community Health Center, a federally qualified health center in Slidell. The center, a 501(c)3 that handles about 5,000 cases each month, provides physical and mental services based on a sliding scale and also accepts Medicaid, making its services available to virtually anyone in the parish.
In September 2011, the parish solidified its partnership with the health center by supplying a grant to add a full-time social worker and a part-time psychiatrist to the staff. The grant was used to fund the new employees’ salaries, allowing the center to expand its much-needed counseling services. At the beginning of 2012, again with help from the parish, a second full-time social worker was hired, and there are plans to hire a third by the end of the summer. In the first three months of 2012, the center provided behavioral health services to 648 patients.
In keeping with the goal of providing for the mental needs of the community, Judge Peter Garcia of the 22nd Judicial Court initiated a behavioral health court in October 2011. This court operates with the knowledge that rather than serving time in jail, some offenders need intensive supervision to make sure they see their doctors and take their medications. “It has worked really, really well,” Tim says.
Suicide Prevention Resources
Research shows that suicide survivors—those who are left behind when a loved one has committed suicide—are twice as likely to commit suicide. One local organization that plays a key role addressing this issue is the St. Tammany Outreach for the Prevention of Suicide.
STOPS’s Local Outreach to the Survivors of Suicide team is one of the first of its kind in the nation, says Lynnette Savoie, administrative coordinator. The LOSS team is comprised of survivors of suicide who are on call 24/7 to meet with others who have recently lost a loved one to suicide. “They suffered losses in their own life, so they speak with their hearts,” says Tim, a founding member of STOPS. The organization also hosts a Survivors of Suicide support group twice a month for follow-up and support from other suicide survivors as well as a licensed clinical social worker.
Education about the warning signs of suicide and the appropriate courses of action is of paramount importance to the goal of preventing suicide in St. Tammany. STOPS offers two types of training: SafeTALK, a three-hour suicide alertness program; and Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training, an intensive two-day course about prevention and intervention.
“We are teaching people how to pick up on the signs and how to react to the signs,” Lynette says. Upcoming ASISTs are planned for June 14-15 as well as September 6-7 and 27-28. STOPS volunteers are also available to speak about suicide prevention to churches, schools, businesses and other groups.
St. Tammany’s chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness is also a partner in the parish’s suicide prevention, and some of the programs are supported by the healthcare millage. John Tobin recommends NAMI St. Tammany for those who need information on how to care for mentally ill family members and friends.
For more information about the St. Tammany Parish Suicide Prevention Support Program, visit itsoktotalkaboutit.org. Donations to the overall effort can be made to United Way at unitedwaysela.org. Donations for the crisis response team can be made to the Volunteers of America at voagno.org. For more information about STOPS, visit stops-la.org. For more information about NAMI St. Tammany, visit namisttammany.org.Filed under: Front Page Feature, Giving Back, Health, May-June 2012, Worthy Causes, You and Your Family