HAYS, Kan. – A two-day summit on child suicide scheduled here later this month could turn out to be the largest suicide-prevention forum of any kind in the state in more than a decade, according to organizers.
Led by officials at Headquarters Counseling Center in Lawrence, planners have set the Kansas Youth Suicide Prevention Summit for July 30-31 on the campus of Fort Hays State University.
The hope is to draw as many as 300 people from around the state, said Headquarters Director Marcia Epstein.
“I talked to a woman who wanted to come because she lost her grandchild to suicide,” Epstein said. “She is not any kind of health care professional, but this is a real important issue to her.”
The emphasis of the summit, she said, would be to provide people with tools to prevent and address suicide in their communities.
“It’s not about saying, ‘Oh let’s all feel sad because a lot of people die by suicide,” Epstein said. “It’s about saying this is a significant public health crisis in our state, and we can all make a difference and here is something you can do.”
According to the latest statistics from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, the state had 384 suicides in 2011, down from 409 the year before.
Suicide was more prevalent among males, representing more than 80 percent of them in that two-year span.
The average age of suicide victims those two years was in the early to mid-40s, according to the data. But after unintentional injuries, suicide was the second leading cause of death for Kansans between the ages of 15 and 24.
Though the focus of the summit would be on prevention among individuals between the ages of 10 and 24, Epstein said, the information would apply across age ranges.
As a crisis clinician at the Johnson County Mental Health Center, Bill Art has a long history with suicide-prevention efforts. With Epstein, he is co-chair of the Suicide Prevention Subcommittee of the Governor’s Mental Health Services Planning Council.
He said the Fort Hays summit would probably be the largest such event dedicated to suicide prevention since back-to-back statewide meetings were held in 2000 and 2001.
Those meetings came at a time of heightened focus at the federal level by then U.S. Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher, Art said.
At about the same time, Garrett Lee Smith committed suicide. His father was a U.S. senator from Oregon at the time, and he pushed legislation establishing a federal suicide prevention grant program in his son’s name.
Kansas received a three-year, $1.4 million Garrett Lee Smith grant last year, and the Fort Hays summit is part of the work through the grant.
Working on an update of the state’s suicide prevention plan will also be a key focus of the summit, Art said.
The state published its initial plan in 2006, he said, and it’s overdue for an update. He said the state must update its plan to remain eligible for federal mental health block grant funding.
As part of the Garrett Lee Smith grant, state administrators are also making “mini grants” available for community activities around training, programming, and coalition building. The grants range in size from $3,000 to $25,000.
Epstein said Headquarters expected to announce the award winners within the next couple weeks.
A Johnson County coalition is among the groups that have funding requests pending, said Tim DeWeese, director of clinical services for the Johnson County Mental Health Center.
The mental health center, in conjunction with the state regional prevention center serving the county, has spearheaded a drive to reduce suicides in Johnson County.
According to data compiled locally, Johnson County experienced a 91 percent increase in suicides between 2008 and 2012. The number rose from 45 to 86.
Following a county forum in November, DeWeese said, organizers have established three work groups with a total of about 70 individuals. Each work group held an initial meeting last week.
Each group is addressing one of three main priorities identified at the November forum.
Participants have based their plans on three of the goals included in a national strategy for suicide prevention issued last year by the U.S. Surgeon General:
- Communicate ways to prevent suicide by changing knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors
- Train community and clinical service providers on the prevention of suicide and related behaviors
- Promote suicide prevention as a core component of health care services
DeWeese said the goal is for each group to have an action plan in place by late fall.