Nevada improves, slightly

Families in need of youth services described here, call 688-1670.

It was painfully obvious that more needed to be done.

Back in 2009, state Sen. Anne O’Connell, R-Las Vegas, appeared in front of the Assembly Health and Human Services Committee touting Senate Concurrent Resolution 11, expressing support for efforts in Nevada to develop more effective suicide prevention programs. The resolution was full of horrifying statistics as Nevada led the nation with the highest suicide rate, double the national average. It also highlighted how preventable the tragedies were.

One committee member, Assemblymember Mark Manendo, D-Las Vegas, wondered why the Legislature would pass a “feel good” resolution urging itself to do something, instead of actually taking concrete action. He thought implementing a statewide hotline was a good place to start as the hotline operated by the Crisis Call Center in Reno didn’t reach Southern Nevada.

Another Assembly member—it happened to be me—concurred and said the state had an obligation to address this public health catastrophe by funding a statewide hotline instead of expecting churches and private donors to come up with the cash every year.

The Manendo-Leslie subcommittee held a hearing and determined that $100,000 a year was necessary to ensure a statewide hotline was in place, 24 hours a day, as the most effective mechanism to stop a suicidal person from ending his or her life. As a “taxes are evil” conservative, O’Connell was none too pleased about her resolution getting hijacked into a funding bill, but suicide prevention advocates were thrilled the Legislature might do more than urge itself to take action.

Nevertheless, the concept stalled until Assemblymember Dawn Gibbons, a Washoe Republican, marched into Gov. Kenny Guinn’s office and told her personal story. At the age of 16, Gibbons had witnessed her father committing suicide with a firearm. Her bravery in recounting the traumatic experience to the entire Legislature was so powerful, the hotline funding passed and still exists today.

Nevada now ranks as the state with the eighth highest suicide rate, an improvement, to be sure, over the decades we spent as number one on the list. Efforts have expanded to include another effective prevention mechanism targeting youth, a state-funded Mobile Crisis Response Team, currently operating in Washoe and Clark Counties.

Mental health professionals respond to calls from families, schools, counselors and others when an intervention is needed to stabilize a youth and develop a safety plan. The program provides crisis intervention and stabilization services for youth under the age of 18, when his/her behavior may be the cause of removal from home or school.

Although the program has only been in place less than two years, 87 percent of the youth served have been diverted from hospitalization. Team members follow up to ensure the youth has been stabilized and has a “warm handoff” to ongoing mental health care.

Many legislators have worked hard to improve mental health care in Nevada since 1999, with some success, although the recession took a heavy toll on the mental health budget. State efforts are guided by the Nevada Office of Suicide Prevention, created in 2005 to develop additional suicide prevention programs and survivor support. The small staff is performing miracles, including groundbreaking work with one large firing range in Las Vegas, where the entire company has been trained in spotting suicidal ideation and intervening before it happens.

There’s more support for survivors also, including a special workshop on November 21st at Northern Nevada Medical Center for families who have experienced a suicide loss.

We have made progress since 1999. But instead of resolving that we ought to do more, we should commit to getting Nevada off the top 10 list by our actions, not just our good intentions.