Kimberly Repp is PhD microbiologist in Oregon. But in 2012 she was asked by county officials to look at suicide. The request led her into the world of death investigations, and also appears to have led to something remarkable: In this suburban county of 600,000 just west of Portland, the suicide rate now is going down. It’s remarkable because national suicide rates have risen despite decades-long efforts to reverse the deadly trend.
While many factors contribute to suicide, officials here believe they’ve chipped away at this problem through Repp’s initiative to use data — very localized data that any jurisdiction could collect. Now Repp’s mission is to help others learn how to gather and use it. For example, data revealed a surprising number of suicides at hotels and motels. It also showed a number of those who killed themselves had experienced eviction or foreclosure or had a medical visit within weeks or days of their death. It revealed that people in crisis regularly turn their pets over to the animal shelter.
But what to do with that information? Experts have long believed that suicide is preventable, and there are evidence-based programs to train people how to identify and respond to folks in crisis and direct them to help. That’s where Debra Darmata, Washington County’s suicide prevention coordinator, comes in. Part of Darmata’s job involves running these training programs, which she described as like CPR but for mental health.
The training is typically offered to people like counselors, educators or pastors. But with the new data, the county realized they were missing people who may have been the last to see the decedents alive. They began offering the training to motel clerks and housekeepers, animal shelter workers, pain clinic staffers and more.
It is a relatively straightforward process: Participants are taught to recognize signs of distress. Then they learn how to ask a person if he or she is in crisis. If so, the participants’ role is not to make the person feel better or to provide counseling or anything of the sort. It is to call a crisis line, and the experts will take over from there. Since 2014, Darmata said, more than 4,000 county residents have received training in suicide prevention.