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Beacon supports NLGA’s efforts to better prevent suicide and care for people in mental health crisis

Wendy Martinez Farmer, Beacon Crisis Leader

Nine years ago, I was driving home through Atlanta rush hour concerned I would not make it in time to pick up my 2-year-old from daycare. Traffic was heavy and I was already running late after handling a crisis at work.

Suddenly, I started experiencing crushing chest pain that radiated down both arms and up into my jaw.

Without much conscious thought, I pulled off the highway, turned into a convenience store, bought an aspirin, chewed it and looked at the store clerk and said “please call 911, I am having a heart attack.”

Within seconds, bystanders who also seemed instinctively to know what to do stepped in to keep me calm and even contacted my family. EMS and fire worked seamlessly to get me safely through the gridlock to the best cardiac care in the city. Less than an hour later, I was in the cath lab and despite indeed having a heart attack that surprised everyone, I was home with my family three days later.

After my health scare, I became more and more interested in what my experience may have been if instead of chest pain, I was suicidal, experiencing psychosis or a drug overdose. The response to chest pain is predictable no matter where you live. We demand it. This is not the case for behavioral health emergencies which can also be fatal.

911 is an incredible, life-saving service for people with emergency physical health issues. However, we haven’t had this equally important service for those with mental health issues. And, mental health is an integral part of a person’s whole health. They are intrinsically linked.

I know this because I am a Licensed Professional Counselor and I have worked in behavioral health crisis services for more than 20 years. I have run crisis call centers and mobile crisis teams and last year I started working with Beacon Health Options to develop our crisis capabilities, which include building and overseeing statewide and community crisis systems.

Crisis Solutions Leader Wendy Farmer discusses how individuals in crisis can better receive the assistance they need, and how to increase behavioral healthcare outcomes while reducing stigma.

Unlike the bystanders and first responders who knew exactly what to do for me, our family, friends coworkers and even medical professionals are much less likely to know what to do when the emergency is related to mental health or substance use.

We know that every year suicide takes nearly 50,000 lives in the US and suicide rates among our young people, particularly children of color and LGBTQ youth are increasing rapidly. We also are experiencing an unrelenting opioid epidemic and enduring a pandemic of proportions not seen in 100 years with a yet unknown impact on our mental health.

Without coordinated behavioral health crisis systems, communities must rely on the system designed for medical emergencies. A common result is a 911 call to law enforcement and a referral to the emergency department.  This often ends in a long wait for a psychiatric bed that may not be needed if the individual could get immediate care at the point of crisis from a hotline, in their own home from a mobile crisis team or in an urgent walk-in center specifically designed with their needs in mind. 

Not only do we need coordinated services, but we also need data to inform our work. Right now, we know how many people in each county were diagnosed with COVID within a few days or a week, but verified suicide data is two years behind because we lack a uniform reporting requirement for these deaths. While there is fear that rates have gone up since the pandemic began, the most recent verified data is from 2019.  This lag leaves suicide prevention efforts flat-footed and slow to respond to unknown patterns.

Planning for the July 2022 launch of 988, which will be the nationwide three-digit number for behavioral health emergencies is a tremendous start. Beacon supports implementing actions outlined in the National Lieutenant Governors Association Suicide Awareness and Prevention Resolution sponsored by Illinois Lt. Gov. Stratton and Iowa Lt. Gov. Gregg as critical next steps in addressing this challenge.  These actions include:

  • Supporting the development of data collection mechanisms to track suicide deaths in the United States in real-time to enable health professionals and researchers to bolster efforts to prevent suicide.
  • Supporting appropriate public funding for future 988 universal number for mental health crises and suicide prevention, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and other crisis services important in serving people at risk of suicide.

These are the types of actions that can be transformative for so many people and also for the people supporting them on their very worst day.

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