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BREAKING THE SILENCE: Give them hope

Editor's note: The Mail Tribune and KTVL join newsrooms statewide in addressing the suicide crisis this week in the hope of saving lives. This is Part 2 of a three-part series; Part 1 is "Talk About It"and Part II is "A Survivor's Story." Watch for coverage on KTVL on Tuesday and Friday.

Jill Jeter talks every week with students who believe they no longer want to live.

The crisis prevention specialist with the Medford School District recalls sitting in an office two years ago with a teenage girl who had tried to kill herself. Jeter says trauma from a sexual assault and other factors had made the student want to give up.

“When I first met her, there was just this sense of hopelessness and emptiness,” Jeter says.

She describes the student’s mindset as, “I’m not planning to be around next year, so I don’t know why I’m even trying.”

But come June, Jeter will see that very student walk across the graduation stage, receive her diploma and move on to a new phase in her life. Her senior project involved supporting other teenage girls who are survivors of sexual assault, Jeter says.

“She’s gone from attempting suicide several times and feeling like she had no support to having this gigantic safety net and supporting others,” Jeter says. “We saw desperation, hopelessness, depression, anger — she blossomed from that, like really. Different kid today.”

The turnaround didn’t happen overnight. It took a team, who helped the girl through art therapy, private therapy sessions and regular check-ins with a mental health counselor at school. Partners in and outside of school also helped illuminate a path back to hope.

It’s what professionals in a broad range of fields, from education to law enforcement to mental health, say helps save the lives of Southern Oregonians wrestling with suicidal thoughts. Each of those systems increasingly draws on others’ expertise to offer support that can reach struggling people more quickly and more effectively.

Overshadowed by the 2018 record suicide rate in Jackson County are quieter stories that don’t often make headlines or evening broadcasts — stories of people who were reached by those interventions in time.

Data from National Suicide Prevention Lifeline suggests that for every person who dies by suicide, another 280 nationwide have seriously considered killing themselves — but did not do so.

“Many of these incidences are untold stories of suicide prevention; what treatments, actions by others, key relationships, community support, technologies, programs, etc. kept these 280 people from killing themselves?” writes John Draper, executive director of the lifeline, in a news release.

Rick Rawlins, clinical operations manager with Jackson County Mental Health Crisis Services, says his department focuses on how it can reach people early and effectively enough to land them in the second category.

Jackson County Mental Health is one local place where therapy is available, though layoffs a few years ago lessened the number of counselors available. The 12 crisis counselors make about 500 crisis contacts per month, Rawlins says.

The department is always trying to spread awareness about its 24-hour Crisis Line at 541-774-8201, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or to text the National Crisis Line at 741741.

Counseling people who are thinking of killing themselves usually involves getting them to look beyond difficult and overwhelming circumstances that convince them there’s no hope.

“If you think about a year down the road, three years down the road, things will be different,” Rawlins says. “But if you do take your life, the family members, three years, five years, 10 years down the road — you’re still going to be gone and they’re still going to miss you and they still want you present.

“Being able to work through the challenges is an important part because you’re going to impact people really for the rest of their lives,” he says.

More recently, the department has partnered with local law enforcement agencies to achieve better outcomes in crisis situations. Police are commonly the first people to respond to a 911 call about a suicidal person, and those situations sometimes are dangerous for others as well.

Those ongoing prevention efforts take shape in the form of increased crisis intervention training and even embedding a mental health expert in law enforcement departments.

Bailey Putnam has been the county’s law enforcement liaison with the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office for about six months.

“It’s nice to be able to have a readily available resource for them,” Rawlins says.

Putnam’s work with community members can occur prior, during or on the back of a mental health crisis. Some of her work unfolds from her place in the sheriff’s office; other times, she goes out to meet directly with people identified by her law enforcement colleagues as needing mental health support.

Family members and friends might be involved in support plans for affected people. Putnam will help connect people with resources from therapy to addiction services to housing help.

Rawlins says that increased funding from the Oregon Health Authority, which is strengthening its focus on mobile crisis response, allowed the county department to launch Putnam’s position.

Taji Allen, another crisis therapist with the county, was the first such professional to embed with the Ashland, Phoenix and Talent police departments in 2016. When the two local coordinated care organizations pulled out of their contracts with Jackson County Mental Health in 2017, however, her position ended among the nearly 200-person layoff.

Most of the evidence of the law enforcement liaison’s effectiveness at saving lives is anecdotal, Rawlins says — it can be difficult to track how many suicides might have been prevented due to intervention — but he says feedback from law enforcement is positive.

“We actually would love to grow that — be able to share this with more than just the sheriff’s office,” Rawlins says. “It’s really about having enough funding to cover additional growth.”

Putnam even accompanies responding officers on calls if they request, to advise them on how to deal with people experiencing mental health crises.

“It’s a good thing,” says Ben Weaver, a sergeant with the sheriff’s office. “We’re trying to head in that direction of, let’s get every situation that is appropriate for this plugged into that resource.”

But officers, too, are being trained to better respond to situations of mental health crises.

All staff with the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office are now required to complete a 40-hour Crisis Intervention Training. They learn about how different mental illnesses affect people and how to respond, relying heavily on hands-on, scenario-based training.

Weaver himself was honored for his response to a suicidal subject call in 2015. In that situation, Weaver, then a deputy, had to focus on protecting not only the subject’s life, but also people nearby and himself, too.

Though multiple officers always respond to a suicidal subject call, Weaver was alone for the most dramatic parts of the interaction. He says sheriff’s deputies had tracked the man’s cellphone to a home in Central Point and responded there.

But Weaver happened upon the man in the parking lot of Rays in Gold Hill.

When he approached the driver, the man began cutting himself with a knife. Weaver immediately placed distance between himself and the man, using their vehicles as strategic barriers, and gave verbal commands for the man to drop his weapon.

The man did not comply and instead moved toward Weaver. The deputy drew his gun.

To disarm the suicidal man after he went to his knees and continued harming himself, Weaver used a less lethal response — a beanbag gun — to get the man to stop cutting himself.

Sheriff’s deputies are trained not to use less lethal methods unless they have lethal backup, but Weaver says he used the beanbag because the man had stopped moving forward, though he continued to harm himself. After Weaver shot his legs, the man threw the knife away from himself.

He survived the incident, likely because of Weaver’s responses.

Weaver says that he can’t remember what was going through his mind during the response, because he was dealing with so many rapidly changing factors.

“That’s what we really try to remember — (what) these people are going through, whether it’s mental health, or compounded with substance abuse or something,” Weaver says. “Every case is an individual because every person is an individual.”

Rawlins says that one of the key aspects of curbing deaths by suicide is to reaffirm to struggling people that their problems are solvable and they are not alone.

“Everyone has times when they’re frustrated, and they get overwhelmed,” Rawlins says. “And if you get to the point where you’re thinking about killing yourself, call somebody There’s always help available.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.

Rick Rawlins, manager of Out Patients and Crisis Services, helps to take calls from community members on the crisis line at the Jackson County Health Mental Department.{ }Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune