Suicide Prevention in Mississippi

Suicide Prevention in Mississippi
Photo Credit: WDAM
Photo Credit: WDAM
Photo Credit: WDAM
Photo Credit: WDAM
Photo Credit: WDAM
Photo Credit: WDAM

HATTIESBURG, MS - Two years ago, Angie Risk lost her only son Casey, a well-liked athlete with a big smile and even bigger love of family.

"He was our only child, he had just turned 18. He was our life," Risk said. "Of course, the guilt I go through is horrid. What did I not do, what did I not say, what did I do that I shouldn't have done."

Looking back, she says the warnings were there, but like so many others who've lost love ones to suicide, she missed them.

"Six hundred people who came through a funeral home had no idea, no idea," Risk said. "It took a lot of therapy for me to learn that these kids are great at hiding things."

It's stories like hers that have spurred a movement in the state.

"I don't think everybody realizes the role that they play in a child's life," said Wendy Bailey.

Bailey is the director of the Bureau of Outreach Planning and Development at the Department of Mental Health. She was there back in 2008 when the department started to take a harder look at suicide, creating the "Shatter the Silence" campaign, which promoted suicide prevention in schools. In the years following, the concern was it only focused on youth and didn't address other segments of the population. That's now changing. 

"We have to understand suicide," Bailey said. "We have to know what to do. We have to know to acknowledge the problem."

According to the most recent numbers from the State Department of Health, which tracks suicides, 430 people died by suicide in 2015. The year before that, the number was 381. When talking about youth, ages 15-24, suicide is typically the second or third leading cause of death in Mississippi. That's about 55 young adults every year. For every completed suicide in young adults, Bailey says there's about 25 attempts. Those are numbers the state doesn't track. If you're doing the math, that's more than 1,300 attempts every single year.

"That's about like a 747 jet, a 747 airplane, crashing every four days," said Bailey.

And that's a big problem which the state is trying to get in front of. The Mississippi Suicide Prevention Plan was crafted last year, thanks to what Bailey calls a grassroots effort from state agencies, advocates and family members of those lost. With little to no state money, the plan has become a road map for a more comprehensive approach, which now includes suicide prevention in kids, adults, the elderly, the military and even in law enforcement.

"There's so many people out there doing so much around this subject that that's one of the goals in the plan is to try to bring everybody together to see what efforts are going on in the state and where maybe there's duplication and where there's gaps," said Bailey.

While it'll be a year or two before numbers are in to see if suicide numbers dropped under the plan, Bailey said it is showing progress in other areas. One component is having gatekeepers inside places like schools, law enforcement agencies and medical facilities. Over the course of the plan's first year, 10,500 gatekeepers were trained, 6,500 of them are students.

"We want to have people who are trained in suicide prevention," Bailey said. "Trained to know the warning signs, the risk factors and what to do."

Last year, state lawmakers passed a bill to mandate training for school professionals, from janitors on up. It also requires districts to develop a policy on suicide prevention. That's all supposed to go into effect next school year.

"We're losing all these kids, this whole almost generation and it's getting younger and younger and younger," said Risk.

For Angie, her son is more than a statistic, which is why she's making it her mission to be a part of that progress.

"You can save a life, literally save a life and that's my goal," Risk said. "That's my purpose."

From talking to students and visiting schools she takes that message everywhere she goes, never afraid to talk about it.

"Every time somebody talks about it, it makes a difference," said Risk.

Bailey says it's people like Angie, and those conversations that help erase the sigma and misconceptions often associated with suicide.

"There's a lot of people who think, 'I can't ask someone if they're thinking about suicide because I might plant the seed and then they'll start thinking about it,'" said Bailey.

With the state plan now going into its second year, Bailey say it'll be reworked as needed. In the meantime, Risk says she's been encouraged by schools starting up student led groups to address suicide prevention, but says the work is far from over.

"I don't think that anybody wants to die or take their own life, I think it gets to the point where they cannot handle it anymore," said Risk.