Center for Mental Health talks suicide prevention
The Rocky Mountain West — from Alaska to Montana, and down to New Mexico — is sometimes referred to as a “suicide belt.” In 2019, Colorado had the fifth highest suicide rate in the country. In 2020, there were 1,294 completed, reported suicides in the state with suicide numbers highest on the Western Slope, according to Paul Reich, who became community relations liaison for the Center for Mental Health (CFMH) in April.
Staff from CFMH planned to facilitate a presentation and discussion about suicide and the community at the Wilkinson Public Library next Thursday, Jan. 13, but made the decision to cancel the event Wednesday afternoon due to the current COVID-19 situation.
Reich learned from CFMH-sponsored forums in Gunnison and Montrose this fall that not everyone has the time, inclination or the interest in taking a formal suicide awareness class. But he also recognizes that communities are impacted by suicide, particularly in San Miguel County, where six residents died by suicide last year.
“We discuss warning signs and how to talk to someone if you’re worried about them,” Reich explained. “We also encourage people to talk and ask questions like ‘How do I know when I should make the call if I’m concerned about someone?’ We want to shine a light on a subject people don’t want to talk about.”
The CFMH maintains clinical offices across the region, including two offices in San Miguel County at 238 E. Colorado Avenue, Suite 9, in Telluride, and at 1605 Grand Avenue in Norwood. Jenny Wheeler serves as the mental health clinician at both locations, providing in-person and teletherapy services. She conducts remote DUI classes and delivers jail-based services for the county three mornings a week, meeting with inmates. While Wheeler is currently on maternity leave, she has temporarily transitioned clients to other remote clinicians.
The biggest development on the horizon at CFMH is its forthcoming merger with Axis Health Systems (AHS), a community health organization that serves southern Colorado counties from Pagosa Springs to Cortez. The merger is scheduled to close in July.
“About six years ago, the then-CEO of AHS was on the forefront of creating integrated clinics, which means they can offer both mental health and physical health services under the same roof,” Reich explained. “Now instead of just our six county service area, combined with AHS, we can serve 11 counties.”
Reich added the merger will allow for more and different types of health services, and in the short term, will increase capacity, build financial stability and enable “bench strength of leadership and clinicians to serve clients.”
Licensed psychologist and certified addictions counselor, Dr. Nicolas Taylor, has been practicing on the Western Slope for 27 years, and is part of the CFMH network. He is immersed in state-of-the-art suicide interventions and treatments.
“These are evidence-based modalities that show that there’s a real advantage to suicide-specific treatments,” he explained. “So rather than somebody being treated for depression or PTSD or bi-polar mood disorder, they’re being treated for suicidality, which is, in and of itself, a significant issue.”
Rather than seeing suicide as a symptom of mental illness, Taylor said treating suicidality keeps people alive. Via thorough assessment, follow-through and management of suicidality, and with a three-month, unbending commitment from a patient — which may include “means restriction” like relinquishing any accessible weapons or lethal means — the direct treatment of suicidality could save lives, he added.
“There are five dimensions that we measure and discuss with clients during every session,” Taylor explained. “The client’s level of psychological pain, rate of stress, agitation, hopelessness and self-hate.”
Taylor added that people need to rethink how suicide presentation happens.
“Previously, we thought someone would show up with the wish to die. Maybe they’d have some ideation and start giving away valuable belongings and show classic warning signs,” he said. “In a lot of the situations we’re seeing now, there aren’t those warning signs. Often it’s people who haven’t even been in for services, and they surprise everyone. It’s not like people are going through predictable stages progressing towards that ultimate lethal act. Instead we’re seeing that it can happen very quickly.”
Rather than always looking for telltale warning signs, Taylor said we can keep eyes open for a level of instability in someone’s life prior to a lethal act like suicide. It’s only when we have open dialogue around suicide, he iterated, that there’s an opportunity to save someone’s life.
“People are often afraid to approach someone they’re concerned about because they wonder, ‘What if I’m wrong?’” Taylor pointed out. “My answer is, ‘What do you have to lose?’ That you cared too much?”
Taylor hopes that people can learn to feel comfortable with how they might have a conversation with someone they’re concerned about, knowing that they have nothing to lose. And that they feel confident knowing that there is suicide-specific treatment available.
“We want to get the word out there. That’s where our hearts are,” Taylor said. “Communities all over the Western Slope are suffering. Let’s be part of the solution.”The CFMH operates a local support line, as well as a crisis walk-in center in Montrose, where clients are accepted regardless of their ability to pay, 24/7/365 days per year. Call the CFMH support line at 970.252.6220. The Colorado Crisis Services Line can also be reached at 844-493-TALK (8255) or text “Talk” to 38255.