Curry County had 191 pleas for help from suicidal people from January to April 31 of this year — two people actually took their lives in that time — leaving Gordon Clay wondering if all the work done to at least reduce those numbers has been for naught.
Clay, a Brookings-area resident and suicide prevention advocate, outlined the latest statistics at a Curry County Board of Commissioners meeting earlier this month to keep the issue in the forefront of their minds and encourage them to address the issue more proactively.
“They’ve been ‘getting to it’ for years,” he said of the lack of action at the county level. “It drives me crazy.”
He cut his comments short at the meeting, saying he couldn’t take the stress of it, but had he continued, he would have suggested the board craft protocols for all health care providers — from physicians to EMTs — so they can tell someone contemplating suicide where they can get help in Curry County. That help would include an evaluation, diagnosis and the ability to obtain a prescription for any needed medication.
Such a system should provide the name, location, phone number, email and hours of the facility, and if none are available, a listing of the nearest such facility in Crescent City, Coos Bay or the Rogue River Valley, he said.
He wants the board of commissioners to ensure Curry Community Health lives up to its responsibilities in providing mental health services, establish a group to solve the mental health issues here, and create a task force to determine the extent of mental illness in the county, identify resources to help people and provide a venue for collaboration and communication.
He suggests members include one member of each city council and school district board, a county commissioner and seven at-large positions, preferable to be filled by those with a background in mental health issues.
The problem, firsthand
It’s not that the issue hasn’t been addressed — and Clay knows it all too well.
In July, he got a call from a friend he called “Pat” who was in crisis.
“He was weeping and barely coherent,” Clay said. “I did my best, but wasn’t able to get my friend the help he was looking for.”
A counselor told Pat he should see a doctor who might prescribe him something to help. Clay took him to Curry Community Health because they have walk-in hours; they were told only Oregon Health Plan patients could be seen during those hours, Clay said.
“But they were certain Curry Medical Center would be able to help,” Clay said. “They would have the right person available to prescribe the right medicine.”
They went to Urgent Care on Fifth Street in Brookings; when a doctor asked how he could help, Pat meekly said, “I don’t want to die.” Clay said they were again told no one there could help — but they were certain Curry General Hospital in Gold Beach could.
“They would have the right person available to prescribe the right medicine,” Clay said he was told.
In Gold Beach, Pat was placed in a “safe” room and then told there was no one there to help, but “certainly Bay Area Hospital in Coos Bay would be able to,” Clay said. “They would have the right person available to prescribe the right medicine.”
Eight hours after Pat called Clay, they arrived in Coos Bay. Pat was placed in another “safe” room and assessed by a social worker. He waited five hours to see a doctor, but by then, he’d grown tired, had calmed down and the two returned to Brookings. More than 16 hours had passed since Pat had called Clay.
What’s being done?
In 2017, more people in the U.S. — almost 45,000 — and in Oregon (795) killed themselves than in any previous year, Clay said. Curry County fell one death shy of tying its all-time record.
Locally, AllCare, Advanced Health, Oregon Coast Community Action, Curry Community Health and others have each tried to address behavioral and mental health issues.
A Curry County Crisis Line has been established. Curry Community Health has a telepsychiatrist to address the needs of this area — and can even prescribe medication.
“However, she is out of Portland and is really booked with 15-minute appointments,” Clay said he’d hoped to tell the commissioners. “It would seem (logical) that she isn’t the only telenurse in the state. Possibly there is a service that could provide a telenurse to any hospital, ER or therapist. If not, there should be.
“There has got to be some way someone in crisis can actually be served without a police department or ambulance taking them to Coos Bay or Medford.”
Clay himself has addressed every city council and school board in Curry County, providing them with updates specific to their residents and students. He has held a symposium to bring together stakeholders to brainstorm solutions, distributed lapel pins with semicolons on them that represent a life paused but not ended, and cards that read “R U OK?” to increase awareness in Curry County.
There was talk of training all first responders in how to approach and deal with someone in crisis, but Clay doesn’t know if that has occurred.
He is asking all the school districts in Curry and Del Norte counties to proclaim September a suicide prevention awareness month; they all comply with the exception of the Brookings-Harbor School District.
He implemented the 741741 crisis texting system in Curry and Del Norte counties — youth are more likely to use texting than a phone, he said. Also, it’s free, anonymous and operates 24/7. And its computer algorithms gives counselor information that could be pertinent to the caller.
“While the computer is locating a trained counselor in the texter’s district, it’s analyzing the text,” Clay’s suicide information website ZeroAttempts.org, reads. “For example, an analysis could show ‘42 percent of texters who say this are cutters,’ or ‘87 percent who say this are in extreme crisis.’ And then, on the screen appears the next best question for the counselor to ask the texter.”
It culls the conclusions and suggestions based on 62 million previous texts received since 2013 and their outcomes, Clay said.
Other advantages include that texting is easier for those with difficulty communicating or are in an environment in which they can’t talk, provides suggestions for the counselor to ask, the text can be referred back to and, it has an easy-to-remember number.
All that work, and it’s only been in the past two years that the number of suicides among youth have started to decline, according to the state wellness surveys Clay collects.
Much more to do
Clay would like the general practitioners in the county to be more informed, as well.
“Ninety percent of people who committed suicide went to a mental health practitioner within a year of their death, and 30 percent within a month,” Clay said. “They (practitioners) don’t ask the patients because they don’t know what to do with the answer.”
The crisis hotline Lines for Life involves four teens under the age of 18 — and supervised by two adults — who take texts from distraught teens. The line operates 4 p.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week.
“Nobody in health services even knew there was a text crisis line,” Clay said he learned two years ago when distributing semicolon buttons in the region. “Nobody at Curry Health Network, no therapists, no one. No clue.”
He would like healthcare providers to recognize the subtle signs behind emojis in texts, as well, so they can better understand what they’re dealing with.
“If you see an emoji with a tear, go to a risk-assessment,” he cited as an example. “That is a step up from saying, ‘I’m going to kill myself.’ If there’s any talk of Ibuprofen, Aleve, they’ve gone beyond the thought of suicide and have a plan. They’re figuring out how they can do it. That is much more serious than depression or anxiety, and it gives the counselor the cue. 741741 has a very high success rate.”
Clay said he was excited when he stumbled across a mental health coalition established in Brookings — until he realized it was in Brookings, Utah. He thought maybe the county could utilize some of its parameters to get a program going.
The county spun off its public health department to create Curry Community Health in 2012. The nonprofit has has much autonomy, but reports to the county every year, as state law says the county must provide public health services.
“It’s time to continue to save lives,” Clay said. “Almost every other day, we’ve got a suicidal subject.”
Reach Jane Stebbins at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Where to get help
Curry County Crisis Line: 877-519-9322
Crisis Text Line: 741741
Veterans crisis: 800-273-8255, then press 1
Veterans talk line: 877-927-8387
Veterans text line: 838255
National Hopeline: 800-273-8255
Numerous others — for LGBTQ, hard-of-hearing, Native Americans — are listed at zeroattempts.org/emergency.html.