New commission to tackle state’s high suicide rate

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Capital News Service

LANSING — Members of a new state commission on suicide prevention are seeking to take action on issues of mental health, social stigma and disparities in suicide rates.

The unpaid commission was approved by the governor in December 2019 with new members appointed on April 7. It includes 27 researchers, first responders and members from health care and advocacy organizations.

The commission includes 14 members appointed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, alongside the nine representatives selected by the State Police, Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. 

Michigan’s suicide rate is higher than the national rate, according to a Senate Fiscal Agency analysis of the bill that created the commission.

Mental health conditions contribute to rates of suicide, but suicide rarely is caused by a single factor, the analysis said. “Other factors include relationship problems, substance use, poor physical health or job, money, legal or housing stress.”

One member is Corbin Standley, who was nominated by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention to represent undergraduate and graduate students studying suicide prevention. He’s a P.h.D. student at Michigan State University from Utah with a background in suicide prevention advocacy.

“I’m really interested in coordinating statewide suicide prevention efforts. Currently there are a lot of sort of disjointed efforts across the state, and I’m interested in bringing together the best practices about what communities and counties are already doing that might be working for their areas, as well as trying to strengthen the state suicide prevention plan,” Standley said.

Standley also expressed interest in improving data collection. He said that by encouraging the state to collect demographics related to suicide, the commission can increase understanding of the issue’s scope, especially among minority groups.

Standley’s research focuses on youth suicide, specifically in marginalized communities. He said he hopes to use his expertise to highlight disparities in rates relating to minority populations and the LGBTQ+ community.

According to a study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, the suicide rate for African American youths aged 5-12 is almost twice that of white youths.

Debra Brinson of Eaton Rapids, another commission member, represents the School Community Health Alliance of Michigan, where she serves as the interim executive director.

“I think there’s a couple of different priorities that I’m interested in looking at. 

“One is how do we support families and youth so that there’s open dialogue and understanding about signs related to suicide and prevention? How do we create opportunities where students and young people don’t feel isolated and that there’s means for them to reach out to a broader spectrum of people for support?” Brinson said.

Suicide rates amongst seniors are rising, she said, “so what can we do to help families and seniors feel connected and look to address the issues related to suicide amongst the older population as well.”

According to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, adults 65 and older account for 18% of suicides in the country.

The commission includes representatives of law enforcement and fire departments.

Danny Hagen, who represents the Great Lakes division of the Michigan Association of Fire Chiefs, trained in the field of critical-stress debriefing that provides services to firefighters suffering with mental and emotional health problems after traumatic events. 

“I was never one to believe that you had to suck it up because it just wasn’t fair, but in our profession that’s what you do. This big macho, great big S on your chest with the cape, and you know we’re heroes. Well, we’re also people,” said Hagen, the fire chief in Hamtramck.

A white paper by the Ruderman Family Foundation found that firefighters and police officers are more likely to die from suicide than in the field.

Nominated to represent suicide loss survivors, Eaton County Sheriff Thomas Reich said he served with three deputies who took their own lives.

“It’s a sad situation, and I wish there were more that could be done. The signs could be identified more freely and we could help these folks that want to take their lives,” Reich said.

Reich said he’s concerned about the number of farmers and youth who commit suicide and expressed his desire to do more for people struggling with substance abuse and mood disorders.

The law requires the commission to submit an annual report and recommendations to the Legislature. 

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