In the past few months, Chittenden County’s Howard Center has been working with local municipalities to put more mental health resources within easy reach of the people who need them most.
The new Community Outreach Program involves South Burlington, Colchester, Williston, Winooski, Essex and Shelburne. It pairs social workers with police officers to help de-escalate crisis situations and so far, local officials say they like what they see.
Shelburne Director of Administration Ann Janda calls it a success. “And we are getting that information from the police chiefs of all the towns that are participating. The feedback we are getting is for either mental health issues or for unmet social needs that come up when police are called to a situation, the outreach worker is able to help more effectively than police officers.
“At one point one of the police officers in one of the towns who was with an outreach worker said ‘wow, this was money well spent,” she added.
Police are trained to deal with immediate threats. Officers come prepared for anything in their uniforms and with a gun in their holster. Social workers who arrive alongside police lend a different atmosphere to what are often tense crisis situations.
Shelburne Police Chief Aaron Noble said incorporating the additional personnel has been worthwhile. “I’ve followed up with Community Outreach Specialists, as well as our police officers in the field and have had nothing but positive feedback regarding the collaborative effort and the positive impact to our community,” Noble said.
A real problem in Vermont
In the past few weeks multiple high-profile deaths by suicide have brought mental health issues to light. Fashion designer Kate Spade and celebrity chef and entertainer Anthony Bourdain both died by suicide at the same time the Center for Disease Control released a study that looks at death by suicide rates across the country. The death by suicide rate in Vermont increased significantly over 17 years by nearly 50 percent, according to the CDC. Across the country, the rate of death by suicide increased by 25 percent over the same time. The study covered the years between 1999 and 2016.
The number of attempted suicides is even greater. There are 25 attempts at suicide for every youth death by suicide, according to Thomas Delaney, an assistant professor at the University of Vermont’s Larner College of Medicine.
According to the 2017 Vermont Youth Risk Behavior Survey Report by the Vermont Department of Health, 9 percent of Chittenden County high school students have “made a plan about how they would attempt suicide.”
Another 4 percent have attempted suicide.
In Chittenden County middle schools, 14 percent of students surveyed answered they have “seriously thought about killing themselves.”
“It’s a stigma, and how do we eliminate the stigma?” asked Laurie Emerson, executive director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Vermont.
“It’s looking for warning signs, directly asking the person, ‘Do you feel suicidal or want to hurt yourself?’ It’s not triggering,” Emerson said. “It helps them open up and talk about what they might be feeling.”
NAMI has been working across the state to expand programs that build awareness and bring people together in support groups. Multiple support groups are offered around the state for people who have attempted suicide or have family members who have died by suicide.
The support groups are a place where survivors of attempted suicide can talk about suicide, “without people being alarmed, and people can relate,” Emerson said.
The Howard Center published a booklet, “Suicide Prevention Across the Lifespan” last year, available at town offices, schools and libraries. It describes the warning signs of people who might be at increased risk, and offers information to help connect people with community resources.
The Howard Center also has a local crisis hotline that anyone can call at any time, Charlotte McCorkel, project director of integration, said.
People who answer hotline calls can help set up callers with a face-to-face assessment with a social worker.
During this past legislative session, state officials worked on increasing funding for mental health programs and put preventative measures in place for people who might attempt suicide.
“The legislature supported additional appropriations of over $8 million dollars in the fiscal year 2018 budget to increase support for our state’s community mental health center staff, and added millions more in the budget that Gov. (Phil) Scott just vetoed,” said Rep. Bill Lippert, D-Hinesburg, chair of the House Health Care Committee.
Those appropriations are aimed at helping local programs such as Chittenden County’s Community Outreach Program.
Another bill allocated $5.5 million for renovations at the Brattleboro Retreat to add 12 non-refusal beds – to provide room so even the most difficult patients can’t be turned away – by 2019.
Lippert’s committee also passed a mental health bill which allows minors in Vermont to seek mental health counseling without parental permission.
That was initially aimed at helping Vermont LGBTQ youth who are four times as likely to attempt suicide, according to the results of the 2017 Vermont Youth Risk Behavior Survey.
According to the survey, 30 percent of LGBT Chittenden County high school students have “made a plan about how they would attempt suicide,” and 16 percent of those surveyed have attempted suicide. In Chittenden County middle schools, 57 percent of LGB students answered that they have “seriously thought about killing themselves.”
The “red flag” gun bill in response to preventing school shootings also works to help curb accessibility of guns for people with suicidal intentions. The most common cause of death by suicide in Vermont is by firearms, about 59 percent, Delaney said.
“When one uses firearms with suicidal intent, the victim is usually successful,” said Rep. Kate Webb, D-Shelburne. “So to the extent we can make it more difficult for those individuals with suicidal ideation to obtain firearms, the more likely they will not have a successful suicide attempt.”
Resources: For those in crisis or if you know someone in crisis, contact First Call for Chittenden County: 802-488-7777, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or the National Crisis Text Line: 741741.
Vermont Digger contributed to the reporting.
Editor’s Note: The Vermont Youth Risk Behavior Survey identified LGBTQ high schoolers as LGBT and middle schoolers as LGB.