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Suicides often fit common profile

Mental illness, finances, substance abuse behind most cases, stats show

POSTED: April 5, 2014 11:02 p.m.

A violent death shakes any community, but most do not come at the hand of others: Suicide persistently outpaces homicide as a killer of Hall County residents.

Gainesville’s Ryan Sawyer, owner and founder of BioTrauma, cleans and sanitizes homes where there has been a violent death, many from suicide. He said he sees a similar pattern: white, middle-aged males, a gunshot wound to the head and anti-depressant medication on the bedside table.

“It’s a medication and cultural issue,” Sawyer said.

Statistics from the Hall County Coroner show that white males in their 30s, 40s and 50s were the overwhelming majority of suicide cases from 2011 to 2013.

Certified addiction counselor Jose Galaviz said myriad issues can lead to a mental health crisis, whether a life circumstance, substance abuse or cessation of medical treatment.

“A lot of it is divorce, financial pressure,” he said. “In most of the cases, a person has stopped taking medications.”

“It’s tricky,” he added. “When people are not feeling like themselves, it can take time to find the right combination of medications.”

Whatever the cause, Galaviz is one of many players in the state’s efforts to prevent suicide. He’s part of a mobile crisis team for Hall and other North Georgia counties responding to mental health and substance abuse crises 24/7.

Benchmark Human Services dispatches the teams across the state for on-call intervention. Barring a major medical or law enforcement emergency, the team will ask callers to lock down weapons and hold tight for a maximum 30-minute arrival time.

In Region 1, the team responds to about 50 calls a month, said Cindy Driggers, director of the team for Region 1. Benchmark covers four of six designated regions in the state’s total, or 122 of 159 counties, responding wherever and whenever needed.

“We respond where they are,” Driggers said. “We’ve been to Walmart, seen people on the street, go to group homes, DFACS offices ­— wherever that person is, we go there.”

Driggers said the service is a breakthrough for mental health crisis care.

“Prior to July, if you had a family member in a mental health crisis, the only option was to take them to the ER,” she said.

Change didn’t come so simply. The Department of Justice sued Georgia for inadequate mental health care in 2009 and the state settled the next year, agreeing that people with mental illness were not being served well. When patients were moved from state hospitals and placed in community-based settings back home, Driggers said it represented an enormous shift in resources.

“I think Georgia made a very bold move in trying to change the whole model,” she said.

Georgia is not the first state to be targeted by the DOJ for lagging in mental health services.

“The Department of Justice is doing a march through the U.S.,” she said. “It’s been an issue for years.” 

With enhanced funding, Driggers said, the state has just recently been able to enhance the scope of mobile crisis response, expanding services beyond people with developmental disabilities in crisis to mental and substance abuse crises. That team began in June 2013. The services are funded by the state’s Department of Behavioral Health.

Having a no-cost option is critical for creating a culture of seeking help, she said,l for a person suffering from depression. Their treatment, and their likelihood of again seeking help in a crisis, can be hindered by a hospital bill.

“There is a time and a place for an ER, but if we can get to them in the community, we avoid an additional debt, an additional burden,” Driggers said.

Being community-oriented also helps the group develop relationships, whether public or private, with therapists and counseling organizations, she said.

“Next business day urgent appointments cut down on the amount of hospitalization,” Driggers said. “If we go out and someone is in crisis — contemplating suicide, threatening — if we can get a safety plan in place, where we know they’re going to be OK for the next 24, 48 hours, then we can get a next day appointment.”

“We’re not law enforcement,” Galaviz said. “One of the big goals of this service is to avoid long-term hospitalization, or prison, any form of lockdown.”

“We don’t like doing that,” Driggers added, regarding involuntary commitment. “That takes away people’s civil rights.”

A lot of calls originate at Georgia’s crisis hotline, 1-800-715-4225. The calls are assessed and “triaged,” with the operator determining whether to forward the case to Benchmark.

There are circumstances where their intervention power from a call is limited, she said.

“We get a lot of third-party calls, and probably the most complicated one is when parents of an adult child using substances calls us and wants us to help,” she said.

While “there is certainly a place for us if the person wants help,” she said, otherwise little can be done.

One way the team tries to uniquely reach people is by employing Certified Peer Specialists, a counselor in recovery from mental illness or addictive disease.

“A big part of recovery from mental illness and addictive disease is hope,” Driggers said.

That’s where a CPS like Galaviz can empathize and demonstrate to the person that recovery is possible.

“One thing I think that helps is we can relate,” Galaviz said. “Like, ‘Hey, I know exactly what you’re going through.’”

It takes courage to make the phone call, and Driggers stressed that the group follow up beyond the one time on-scene intervention.

“We are very recovery-focused,” she said. “You can recover from mental illness, just like you can recover from anything else, and you can live a full, good life.”


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