Our Voice: Mental health concerns must be community priority

It seems a bit early in the year to declare that suicides have declined in our two counties.

While a recent article had numbers that show the rate of suicides to be about flat, there's no strong evidence of a sustained statistical decline in the figures and we have a whole lot of 2013 left on the calendar.

The topic of suicide is never pleasant, but there might be a bit of a silver lining in the dreary report.

More seriously ill people are accessing the local Crisis Response Unit. The positive side of that is people are seeking help, and in the long term that may help prevent suicides and other tragedies.

In January 2012, the unit's staff had 219 face-to-face evaluations. This year, that number rose to 258.

Those type of evaluations happen when someone is deemed to be an imminent danger to themselves.

It could come from an intentional drug overdose or some other cry for help that lands a person in an emergency room.

If someone is seen as danger to themselves during a visit to a hospital, for example, a mental health professional must talk to the person before he or she can be released.

A safety plan is discussed, which can vary from a referral for psychiatric treatment to admission to a psychiatric hospital.

Unfortunately, the need for hospitalization for psychiatric conditions is rising but there aren't enough accommodations to meet the very critical need. They have nowhere to go in times of crisis.

"The number of beds we have in psychiatric facilities is extremely limited or the facilities are overwhelmed or closed to admissions," said Ed Thornbrugh, director of Benton Franklin Human Services. "It's often hard for us to get people into an in-patient resource."

That must change.

We know our state's budget is woefully inadequate as it is, but now there is even less money available for mental health services in our communities.

The human services department has applied what money it has received to pay for hospitalization and crisis services -- with nothing left in the coffers for outpatient care.

That makes it hard to provide ongoing care for people who have had challenges. "We're seeing some folks from crisis to crisis and not providing stabilizing care," Thornbrugh said.

Some hope exists for the currently uninsured to be able to receive consistent care through new health insurance programs in our state.

The mental health of our community is something that often is overlooked. It's not an easy topic to talk about and a stigma still exists in our society.

Those suffering from mental illness often aren't able to express their feelings or even recognize the problem. All too often, their loved ones turn a blind eye, hoping it will pass.

But no longer can we ignore or camouflage those among us who are suffering. Lives are being cut way too short, and sometimes those who don't harm themselves end up harming others.

All too often we read of a tragedy, when those around the perpetrator were aware something was seriously wrong with the person's behavior or way of thinking.

We can't afford to wait until it's too late to seek help for those who may need it. It's better to err on the side of caution and head off a potential tragedy, than to carry the guilt after something horrible has happened.

No shame exists in trying to help someone -- even if the person doesn't know he or she needs help. Talking helps and helping navigate a path to care could be a blessing.

Suicide attempts aren't usually a spur of the moment action. The warning signs usually have been there for a while: depression, hopelessness, talk of death, giving away possessions or stockpiling guns and pills are obvious signs.

Others may be more subtle.

When you see the signs, do something about it -- before it's too late.

Gone, thankfully, are the days of locking folks up and throwing away the key, subjecting those with mental illness to horrific methods of treatment. But now, unfortunately, we often are guilty of letting them wander the streets or spiral into darkness.

Treatment may be hard to come by, but it's not impossible. We all have to work together to help people get the help they need. The safety net is frayed and the only solution is for us to be better caretakers of each other.