UW News

December 15, 2015

Forefront launches suicide prevention effort in three rural Washington counties

News and Information

Suicide is a tough issue to broach. How could an adult know if a child in the community might be suicidal and when to intervene? Is it appropriate to ask a friends or colleagues if they’re considering suicide? If someone is in crisis, what’s the best way to respond?

Forefront: Innovations in Suicide Prevention hopes to give people in three Washington rural counties with some of the highest suicide rates in the state the skills and knowledge to address such questions. The organization, based in the University of Washington’s School of Social Work, will provide suicide prevention training and crisis preparation in schools and the broader community. The work is being funded through grants of $50,000 from the Washington Women’s Foundation and $100,000 from the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Implementing the grants in tandem, project director Jennifer Barron said, enables a comprehensive approach to suicide prevention that will include everyone from school principals and teachers to emergency responders, mental health professionals and community residents.

“We believe that suicide prevention is everybody’s business,” Barron said. “Everybody in a community has the ability to know warning signs, to be able to talk to the suicidal person and to get help. That’s really the goal of putting the two grants together.”

The grants will focus on Island, Okanogan and Stevens counties, which had suicide rates of 20.4, 25.2 and 16.2 per 100,000 between 2009 and 2013, respectively, compared with 14.5 for the state overall. The initiative will provide six-hour training sessions for mental health and health care professionals and shorter sessions for school employees and any interested member of the community. Forefront was instrumental in passing laws requiring both types of training in Washington. An additional $50,000 from the Washington Women’s Foundation will fund suicide prevention efforts in three additional rural counties next year.

The work will also include creating coalitions around suicide prevention to determine the best approach to suicide prevention for each community’s needs. Barron hopes to also incorporate the Forefront Cares program, which pairs people who have lost loved ones to suicide with those newly bereaved by suicide for one-on-one telephone support.

Though Washington school districts are now required to have crisis plans to assess suicide risk and support staff and students after a suicide, teachers and students might be uncomfortable talking about such an intensely personal issue. Caitlin Jones, a mental health counselor for Island County who works in the South Whidbey School District, said training can teach people appropriate questions to ask and ways to respond.

“People are nervous about the subject and wonder if talking about it is going to help or make things worse,” she said. “It’s a somewhat taboo subject, and it’s a scary subject. So just getting the information out there can really empower adults as well as kids, I think, to be able to identify the signs and speak up if they’re seeing something.”

Staff and students at the Omak School District in Okanogan County were shocked by the suicide last May of a longtime middle school teacher, followed a week later by the suicide of a classroom aide. The teacher’s death hit particularly hard, Omak School District Superintendent Erik Swanson said, since he’d taught thousands of children in the small town over his 26-year career. Several of the teacher’s colleagues noticed his decline in the weeks before his death, Swanson said, but were unsure what to do.

Within hours of the teacher’s suicide, Swanson said, the district launched a crisis response that included bringing in counselors from neighboring districts and support from mental health professionals and staff at the North Central Educational Service District.

The response was effective, he said, but the tragedies underscored the need for different approaches tailored to students at various ages and greater focus on awareness and prevention. He hopes the Forefront initiative can enhance the district’s efforts.

“Any way we can do this better is worth examining,” Swanson said. “We don’t want to lose another person. Not one. If we can do a better job of interfacing with our community to find those indicators of what’s taking a kid or an adult down the path of even considering suicide before it happens, then that’s worth looking at.”