Marion County’s suicide rate is lower than the statewide rate. But when a Knoxville teen and recent high school graduate died by suicide in late summer 2017, “I was really kind of taken aback,” said Cassi Pearson, Knoxville Community School District superintendent.
“I had only been in town three years and in those three years had known of seven suicides,” Pearson said. “Before I moved to Knoxville, I had never been in touch with a suicide.”
Pearson began making calls.
“We knew we had to take some action, but nobody was doing anything,” she said. “I decided to get some people around the table.”
Months of meetings between Pearson, her staff and the county’s public health, law enforcement and emergency agencies led to creation of subcommittees to address four priorities — training, response, communications and prevention.
“We decided we really wanted this to be a wider community effort,” Pearson said.
About 18 months in, Pearson ticks off the community’s effort to address each priority.
1. All 300 school staff, along with police, first responders and mental health staff, have undergone an eight-hour training program in what Pearson calls “mental health first-aid.” Delivered through the county’s public health department, the course covers spotting stress symptoms.
“Usually when somebody’s in distress, there are some symptoms and there are some strategies you can be aware of,” Pearson said. “We have to start talking about them, like a broken arm or diabetes.”
2. Communication is addressed through such now-common strategies as stepped-up Facebook and Twitter feeds pushing crisis hotlines and chat services, awareness events, and support groups.
3. Response was practiced after a nearby district experienced a student death by suicide in January.
“I got the call about an hour after the death, and we were able to put some things in place to help that smaller community,” said Pearson. She said Knoxville staff helped with advice on notification of students and the community, and connected school officials with counseling resources.
“We don’t want them to feel more isolated,” she said.
4. Prevention was the focus for a spring Monday on which regular class activities were canceled in favor of small-group — no more than 15 students — sessions on mental health and life skills. One of the school’s 525 students had the idea, and a student survey helped plan the curriculum.
“Their top choice was wanting more information on how to live on your own,” Pearson said. “Three of the suicides in our community have been in that gap, six months to a year, from graduation to being an adult. It can be very challenging for young adults to navigate.”
While school-focused efforts may not immediately address older Iowans’ needs, advocates hope they can bring lifetime benefits.
“I would really like our emphasis to be on prevention on upstream approaches,” said Corrine Peek-Asa, a professor in the University of Iowa’s College of Public Health who’s researched rural suicide. “This can feel so unwieldy, but we really need to think about what the root causes are.”
“People in trouble as kids are going to run into trouble as adults,” reasoned Ryan Nesbit, co-chairman of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Iowa chapter.
“Everybody seems to have a cellphone with a video camera on it,” Pearson said. “That changes the game, especially for teenagers. Helping them to have that resiliency and maybe a thicker skin is part of our responsibility as educators and parents. We need to let younger kids fail and work through some things instead of making them think things are going to be perfect.”
Louisa County Extension Director Kathy Jolly Vance said local leadership is key to the success of grass roots efforts. She and some other residents began working on the issue about two years ago.
“We had seen an increase in suicide attempts in Louisa County, and I said that’s something we need to address,” Jolly Vance said.
Funded through a foundation grant, the group organized and delivered stress-recognition training for local first responders, school staff and clergy. Jolly Vance said any small town anywhere in Iowa could do the same.
“If you’re trying to write, ‘Woe is me, rural Iowa needs services,’ I’m not going to tell you that,” she said. “We out in rural Iowa have always recognized the need to cooperate.”
Where to find help
If you are having thoughts about suicide or have a friend or family who has, here are some websites and numbers you can call for information:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
24 Hour Crisis Hotline, Online Chat
Your Life Iowa
24 Hour Crisis Line, Chat and Text Support
Call: (855) 581-8111
Text: (855) 895-8398
Iowa Help Line 24/7
Text: (855) 800-1239
Chat or text: 24/7
Text: 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Friday
Iowa Warm Line
5 to 10 p.m. every day
Iowa Concern through the Iowa State Extension
Treatment Advocacy Center