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A Personal Perspective on Why Virginia’s Stand on Suicide Prevention and Intervention Initiatives Matter

6/13/2012 8:00:00 AM
Written By:
Christofa Gallatin Letsom

As a volunteer and staff person for a crisis hotline, I have over twenty years of experience working with people in crisis, sometimes suicidal crisis. But my earliest learning about suicide started on a more basic, personal level. When I was 8 years old, my brother, then 14, completed suicide. At the time of his death, some three decades ago, there were few supports for individuals and families experiencing overwhelming loss due to suicide. Faith communities largely stigmatized the deceased and their families. Crisis hotlines were beginning to pop up around the United States but were not in widespread use. Support groups, sometimes known as survivors of suicide groups, had not yet caught on. 

Since the loss of my loved one, much has changed, especially in the past 10 years. This is due in large part to several initiatives led by both the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) and the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services (DBHDS). Through the leadership of these agencies and other suicide prevention stakeholders, Virginia continues to find ways to increase the safety of those at risk.

Hotlines were often started as public service projects and supported by volunteers. These lines made themselves available to callers in crisis. Sometimes these callers were experiencing suicidal crisis and the hotline was able to intervene and send life-sustaining assistance. About 30 years ago, many areas were able to grow and sustain survivor support groups, several of which are still in use today, to support those recently bereaved by suicide loss. These services are key community resources helping countless numbers.

In 2000, a series of focus groups were called to examine the state of suicide prevention efforts within Virginia. These meetings included representatives of state agencies, survivors of suicide loss, mental health advocates, school based personnel, law enforcement and crisis hotline staff.  As a result "A Study of Suicide in the Commonwealth" was published outlining strategies to reduce suicide risk. In 2001, stakeholders were trained and became the base cadre of trainers who began to educate community organizations in suicide prevention and intervention. As a result of the earlier study and networking it created, the Virginia Suicide Prevention Coalition formed in February 2002.  This public-private partnership brought stakeholders together and continues the mission of suicide prevention.

In 2002, the Youth Suicide Prevention plan was created to specifically focus on programs and efforts to address a key vulnerable population: Virginians ages 10-24. This document helped open the door to much of the training still on-going in Virginia. Since the beginning of this initiative, school personnel have received guidance on recognizing and intervening with students in crisis. Educators can now opt to participate in RESPONSE (a high school-based program) and SafeTALK. In 2009 the work of the youth initiative was expanded to include college campuses and universities through the Campus Suicide Prevention Center of Virginia. The goal of this organization is to support individuals and teams in building the infrastructure necessary to promote mental health for all students, identify and support those with mental health concerns, and effectively respond to individuals who are at risk for suicide. The Campus Suicide Prevention Center of Virginia coordinates training across campuses, oversees multi-campus data collection through the Healthy Minds Study and recently published "Peer Involvement in Campus-Based Suicide Prevention:  Key Considerations."

In 2004, Virginia expanded its planning efforts to include recommendations for those beyond the age of 24. It attempted to address issues that occur over the life span, including special concerns of aging Virginians who complete suicide at higher rates than the rest of the population. Although this was originally an unfunded mandate, the recommendations of this study continue to inform prevention efforts. As it nears the 10 year mark, the plan is currently being updated to include recent advances and best practices.

Many other initiatives move Virginia forward. Survivor Voices is a program, supported by the Virginia Department of Health, to help survivors of suicide loss tell their stories in ways that comply with safe messaging and promote healing and help-seeking. There is also active collaboration to help our returning combat veterans through the Virginia Wounded Warrior Program, an initiative of the Department of Veteran Affairs. In 2009, Virginia published its first statewide suicide prevention resource directory.  In its 3rd Edition, it is available to all on line. You can access it here:   http://www.vahealth.org/Injury/preventsuicideva/documents/2011/pdf/Virginia_Suicide_Prevention_Directory.pdf

Additionally, this past year a series of regional suicide prevention summits were conducted to gather information about what communities were doing to prevent suicide. These summits provided an opportunity for those working to prevent suicide in the same community to meet, connect and network with their neighbors.

The work of state agencies and non-profit organizations continues to strengthen the safety of those most vulnerable.  Participation from agencies like the VDH, DBHDS, Dept. of Veteran Affairs, Department of Indian Affairs, Department on Aging, Virginia Wounded Warrior Program, NAMI and many others creates opportunities to strengthen communities. This work puts Virginia ahead of many other states. It was a stunning loss to have lost a brother to suicide. However, when I think back to all the amazing work being done across our state, I am sure that this is the best way to celebrate so many lives ended way too soon.

For more information on statewide efforts and training opportunities regarding suicide prevention, please visit:  http://www.preventsuicideva.org/.

Christofa Letsom is a Training Specialist with the Planning Council where she focuses on mental health training and statewide suicide prevention advocacy. She also chairs the Virginia Suicide Prevention Coalition and serves as a member of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline's Standards. Letsom works with several crisis intervention teams and negotiators on active listening, crisis intervention and suicide assessment. Prior to her work at the Planning Council, Letsom coordinated Crisis Line, as 24 hour suicide prevention/crisis intervention hotline.

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