Waiting For a Dial Tone 

Idaho's suicide hot line can't be plugged back in soon enough

Boise State professor Dr. Peter Wollheim serves as the co-chair of the Idaho Commission on Suicide Prevention and is a founding board member of the Idaho Suicide Prevention Action Network.

Laurie Pearman

Boise State professor Dr. Peter Wollheim serves as the co-chair of the Idaho Commission on Suicide Prevention and is a founding board member of the Idaho Suicide Prevention Action Network.

At first glance, Emmett is not unlike many small towns in Idaho. But 2012 has been anything by typical there. In late January, Potter's Funeral Chapel on Emmett's Main Street held the bodies of two young men--both victims of suicide. One--a 15-year-old freshman at Emmett High School--picked up a gun at 7 a.m. on Jan. 23 and ended his own life. His death rocked the community, which was already struggling with a previous suicide, just two days earlier, a young adult male.

A few days after the death of the Emmett High School student, a joint press release was issued by the Emmett Police Department, Gem County Sheriff's Department, the Gem County Prosecuting Attorney and the Emmett School District:

"Our condolences are with the family and all who are suffering from this loss," Emmett High principal Wade Carter wrote, advising parents to meet with their children and "watch for signs for depression."

Additionally, Wayne Rush, the Emmett School District's superintendent, said that his colleagues had made six trained counselors and psychologists available to students and teachers.

"We have been fielding calls from concerned parents and have emailed staff and parents with available information and a link to the Idaho Suicide Action Website," said Rush. "The wrestling team did have a team meeting and decided on an appropriate way to remember the student that week."

The school huddled with its crisis management team, not only to decide how to deal with the short-term effects of the death but also how to handle it for the rest of the year.

"Death is hard and often times especially hard when it happens this way," said Rush. "It is amazing how students come together to support each other."

According to the Idaho Council on Suicide Prevention, the Gem State's 2009 suicide rate was fourth highest in the nation. The report paid particular attention to how small communities were struggling with the crises with little-to-no resources.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death for adolescents and young adults in Idaho, behind accidents. According to the Suicide Prevention Action Network, 14 percent of Idaho youth reported seriously considering suicide in 2009, while nearly 7 percent reported making a serious attempt.

"The problem here in Idaho is that every school district is autonomous," said Dr. Peter Wollheim, a Boise State professor who also managed a Boise-based suicide hot line for 15 years before it was shut down due to a lack of funding. "We made recommendations that we posted on the Department of Education website, but there is not a mandate that people should follow it. We don't give resources to the schools to do it."

Wollheim said such resources could include volunteer groups to immediately respond to incidents like the Emmett suicides.

"Youth are influenced by peer behavior. ... They are pretty vulnerable to that so we are very careful and encourage press people and schools on the proper ways to talk about suicide, not to sensationalize it, not to have these locker memorials," said Kathie Garrett, who runs the governor's task force on suicide prevention.

Wollheim agreed, saying the volunteers help foster a trusting environment in which youth can open up about their frustrations and possible thoughts of self-harm.

"What we saw is that the kids would then talk to the counselors, or they'd talk to their friends and say, 'I heard this guy talking. I'm worried about my buddy. Can you just talk to him?' So, we're seeing a lot of indirect effects," said Wollheim.

Rush said with few resources available, Emmett did what it could. While the district did have a crisis plan, Rush explained that each situation is different from the last.

"First, it's just dealing with a crisis by having the counselors there, at the high school, starting to deal with the issues," he said. "Communicating with teachers, parents, getting the right info out."

Easier said than done. Rush said in a small community kids talk and rumors usually follow. He said one rumor that spread quickly was that there were up to five suicides in his town within a few weeks, when in fact, there had been two. Rush said his colleagues were surprised at how much social media fanned those flames to spread incorrect information.

"We weren't ready for the social media piece of this," said Rush. "So we did monitor Facebook from kids, so we could see what was being said and address those rumors."

But one thing Rush and his colleagues couldn't do was to offer the phone number of a local suicide hot line. Idaho remains the only state in the nation that does not have a suicide hot line. Some are under the false impression that Idaho has such a hot line, but a toll-free number, occasionally distributed by health care professionals, sends callers to one in Oregon.

According to the Oregon hot line, the suicide prevention team receives around 3,700 calls each year from Idahoans--approximately 10 calls daily.

Garrett said an established, local hot line is not just "about one call, or one time, but is an ongoing process with each caller. This is why a hot line within each state is so important to each caller's recovery."

"[We need] to understand that the advantage for Idaho is, once you take your call, and you make sure that the person is safe and doesn't need imminent medical attention, you start bringing the person down to a point where they can start participating in putting together a safety plan," said Garrett. "And so that's why it's so important to have our own hot line, because that person knows the state. They know the resources, they know the culture, and so they are not giving some suggestion on how to stay safe that wouldn't fit with the community in which that person lives."

Wollheim said such a hot line would be a "core crisis intervention function," instead of having people call 911, putting extra strain on an already over-taxed system.

"911 has to [respond to the call]," he said, "It's usually a police officer plus social worker plus EMTs. You commit to resources and then they tend to hospitalize people. With a hot line, you can keep people at home for the vast majority of cases."

When Wollheim's hot line was shut down, some Idahoans mobilized to do something about it. Garrett, the Suicide Prevention Action Network, along with Idaho State University and many other volunteers, received government funding and put together a report on Idaho suicides. But in 2009, at the height of significant state budget cuts, funding for a suicide hot line was one of the first items on the chopping block. Instead, lawmakers found partial funding to conduct a 10-month analysis on the need for a hot line.

"That report actually now stands as part of our guidelines," said Garrett. "It talked about the policies and procedures. It helped design budgets and what the cost is. It really has paid off. It helped raise some awareness but it truly is a true guide to decision making that when we come to a section, we go back and read what was done on that report."

A team of organizations immediately jumped on board, including the Mountain States Group--a nonprofit health and human services provider--and the Idaho National Guard.

"We have been working with Rep. Marv Hagedorn and Veterans' Services since about September," said Garrett. "They came to me. I didn't know they were working on it. But they are concerned about this issue."

In fact, Idaho National Guard Brig. Gen. Alan Gayhart has dedicated a room at the Guard's Gowen Field to use for a suicide hot line when, and if, funding is secured.

There's good reason for optimism. The Idaho Legislature's Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee has approved several recommended budgets that include as much as $160,000 to get the hot line going again. It still awaits approval from the full Legislature.

Rush said the funding can't come soon enough to help Emmett,and every other Idaho community. In the meantime they'll make do with what they have.

"Healing takes time," said Rush. "Individuals go through the grief process differently and at a different pace. They have handled the situation very well and have received counseling and support for the school when needed. In our community, you can see students looking out for each other."

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