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Suicide prevention is about community, culture, policies & systems, expert says

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There’s work being done at the Medical College of Wisconsin's Division of Suicide Research and Healing to better understand the factors that can lead to suicide.

In the United States, suicide is the 11th leading cause of death and is a leading cause of death among young people. In Wisconsin, more than 900 people died by suicide in each of the past two years, according to the Wisconsin department of Health Services. Suicide is a critical public health issue — but it can be prevented.

"Suicide itself is a complicated health issue and you know so prevention is also complex," says Dr. Sara Kohlbeck, the director of the Division of Suicide Research and Healing at the Comprehensive Injury Center at the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW).

She notes that in order to prevent these high rates of suicide, it's key to understand how suicide can impact different population groups in different ways and look at it under a public health lens. Kohlbeck's research focuses on these topics, as well as working on collaborative projects that spread public awareness.

"When we look at kind of the makeup of folks who die by suicide, we have seen over the past couple of years increases in younger folks of color and primarily young Black males dying by suicide in [Milwaukee County]," she notes.

There’s work being done at the MCW’s Division of Suicide Research and Healing that focuses on better understanding the factors that can lead to suicide as well as developing ways to prevent this loss of life and the ripple effect it has on our communities.

Some of their research includes better understanding how to identify people at risk of suicide earlier to help them get connected to treatment and avoid a crisis point. On a broader scale, Kohlbeck says structural and community-level factors that contribute to suicide and suicidal behavior need to be addressed.

"We talk a lot about racism and structural discrimination, housing, and other social determinants of health and basic needs that we find are contributing stressors to a number of the suicides that we see," she explains.

With a background in public health, Kohlbeck says she tends to think upstream.

"A lot of times prevention lies in policy and systems change ... not just legislative policies, but organizational policies, school policies, community policies that could potentially be examined to think about how to better support folks," she says.

Other prevention strategies include educating community members on identifying the potential signs of suicide risk and help them appropriately navigate people to resources available. Kohlbeck notes prevention needs to be across the spectrum of a person's life and in the communities that people live, work and play.

The Captain John D. Mason Veteran Peer Outreach Program at the MCW, in partnership with the Clement J. Zablocki Veterans' Administration Medical Center, is involved with the Gun Shop Project — a program that works with federally licensed firearm dealers to provide temporary, voluntary, off-site storage for firearms when someone is in a mental health or suicide crisis.

"We know from evidence in the literature that creating a safer environment for an individual when they're in this type of crisis can save lives. One of the best things that we can do to prevent suicide is to put time and distance between a person and their means for ending their life."

Currently there are almost 40 gun shops in Wisconsin participating in the suicide prevention education effort.

Dr. Sara Kohlbeck is the Director of the Division of Suicide Research and Healing at the Medical College of Wisconsin. She is also an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine.
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Dr. Sara Kohlbeck is the Director of the Division of Suicide Research and Healing at the Medical College of Wisconsin. She is also an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine.

Kohlbeck notes that programs like the Gun Shop Project that are centered on community outreach are important to help break the stigma that mental health and suicides are an individual's issue.

"It's very important to reach in and provide that environment of support for folks, regardless of whether or not they're having mental health issues. ... I think it's all of our jobs to become what I call 'expert noticers,'" she says. "Noticing when people are maybe struggling or maybe seeming like they're having an off couple of days and just taking the time to sit down with that person. Have a private, non-judgmental conversation, check in and see how they're doing, and then knowing what those resources are to navigate folks to if they are in fact in a suicide crisis."

If you or someone you know is struggling, help is available when you call or text the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988. You can also reach the Crisis Text Line by texting the word “talk” to 741-741 for help that’s free, anonymous and available 24/7.


Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
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