Although suicide is not a major cause of death in Harford County, it is significantly higher than in the rest of the state, prompting the Harford County Health Department to try to educate more community leaders about its warning signs of suicide, Paula Nash, county social work services director, said.
The health department plans to train 12 "suicide prevention champions" to quickly identify and refer people in suicide crisis, Nash told the Harford County Council during the county health department's semi-annual report earlier this week. The council also sits as the county Board of Health.
Suicides are also "generally underreported, for obvious reasons," Nash said, explaining it's sometimes not identified as a cause of death unless, for example, a person leaves a note.
The suicide "champions," or "gatekeepers," would be people "strategically positioned in communities" – pastors, parents, teachers, employers, coaches – who would take a brief program to learn the QPR method of questioning someone's desire or intent regarding suicide, persuading the person to seek help and referring the person to appropriate resources.
It is the latest initiative of the county's behavioral health work group, which is also reaching out to primary care physicians to help them spot patients potentially at risk of suicide, Nash said.
Some people who commit suicide, particularly elderly ones, do it shortly after seeing a primary care physician, sometimes the same day, Nash said.
A health department liaison has been working with physicians to provide a binder they can quickly refer to, if they suspect someone may be in danger of suicide, she said.
Harford suicide rates fell by 6 percent in the 2011-2013 period, the most recent statistics available. At 10.7 suicides per 100,000 deaths, however, the rate remains higher than nine per 100,000 statewide. Previously, Harford health officials said the county has the 10th highest suicide rate among the 23 Maryland counties and Baltimore City. Harford ranks seventh in population.
Anecdotally, the county had "several" suicides during September, Nash said during her presentation to the county council Tuesday evening.
In May, the heath department oversaw a workshop for about 50 health care providers on suicide prevention at Upper Chesapeake Medical Center, where the focus was on suicide among younger people.
Firearms are the most common method of suicide, especially among men. Women are more likely to poison themselves, such as by overdosing on pills.
Nash also said although the "tragic story" of veterans returning from war to become suicidal has received significant attention, "the victims are not only the ones who complete suicides; it's family members as well."
"There is a ripple effect in the community," she said.
Councilman Jim McMahan asked if the group works with Aberdeen Proving Ground, and Nash said it does. She said she does not consider the separate mental health efforts of APG and the county to be superfluous.
The county work group plans to continue supporting a yellow-ribbon suicide prevention program in Harford County Public Schools and at the private John Carroll School, creating a suicide fatality review board and promoting suicide awareness on social media, Nash said.
"We hope to be increasing the way the media and social media report on suicides," she added, saying the local news "had really nice coverage" of the county's efforts lately, but some other media has not been "as sensitive."
Local resources for suicide prevention include the county's mobile crisis team at 410-638-5248 and the Maryland Crisis Hotline at 1-800-422-0009. Nash said she believes suicide can be reduced significantly.
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"There is no reason that someone should be as hopeless and helpless that the only option is to take their own life," she said.