September is suicide awareness and prevention month, and local mental health professionals and representatives of government and law enforcement met Friday evening for a public event to draw attention to resources. The event focused on prevention of the use of firearms in suicide attempts, including an emphasis on youth ages 12 through 20 and former or active military service members.
To that end, the use of firearm locks and lock boxes was promoted.
The event was organized by the Howell County Suicide Prevention Network (HCSP), an alliance of individuals and health and public safety service providers formed to tackle the problem of mental health treatment in an area of Missouri that statistically has one of the highest rates of suicide.
HCSP Community Organizer Amanda Foster said it’s the first year for what she hopes will be an annual event.
In 2022 in Howell County, according to information provided by the HCSP, 18.2% of Howell County sixth through 12th grade students reported seriously considering suicide and 9.3% reporting attempting it. The numbers are based on a Missouri Student Survey conducted for 2022 by the Missouri Department of Mental Health, a voluntary survey given in even-numbered years to track risk behaviors in that age group including alcohol, tobacco, drug use and other behaviors that endanger health and safety.
Foster added that Howell County has been identified for its high rate of suicide, which is higher than the next three counties in the area, Greene, Christian and Taney.
Some warning signs, provided by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, that may indicate someone is having a mental health crisis or contemplating suicide: negative changes in behavior, signs of depression or other mental illness, or substance abuse, or a combination of these things.
Other risk factors for suicide related to health include aggressive behaviors, mood changes, poor personal relationships, chronic or serious physical health conditions including chronic pain, and traumatic brain injury.
Others may be personal circumstances like prolonged stress; life events like divorce, financial hardship and other life transitions or losses; or exposure to another person’s suicide or to graphic or sensationalized accounts of suicide.
Speaking about suicide, feelings of hopelessness, not having a reason to live, feeling trapped, looking for ways to commit suicide, withdrawing from activities or self-isolating from family and friends, sleeping too little or too much, fatigue, anxiety, irritability, loss of interest in normal activities, humiliation and shame, agitation and anger, and even a sudden expression of relief or improvement in mood can also be warning signs. A family history of mental illness and suicide, or a personal history of childhood abuse, neglect or trauma are risk factors as well.
Preventing access to more lethal means of suicide, including firearms and certain medications, can help save a life, event organizers reminded. That may mean installing a gun safety lock on firearms or storing the firearm and/or medications. For information on purchasing gun locks or lock boxes, contact a local law enforcement agency or health department. In Howell County, that includes the West Plains Police Department at 417-256-2244, the Howell County Sheriff’s Office at 417-256-2544, or the Howell County Health Department at 417-256-7078.
Another resource is the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The VA Mental Health/Suicide Prevention Community Engagement and Partnership Coordinator for the John J. Pershing VA Medical Center based in Poplar Bluff is Timothy Pennington. Pennington may be contacted by calling 573-686-4151.
The national Suicide and Crisis Hotline number is 988 and may be called by those in crisis or those seeking help for a loved one. The chat feature of the hotline number may be reached at 988lifeline.org.
Veterans may access the hotline by dialing 988, then pressing the number one, or initiating a live chat at VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chat, then texting 838255.