Suicide rates across the country and Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin continue to climb, according to the latest data released by U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Mental health professionals have expressed alarm.

“I think the increase in the suicide rate has gotten all of our attention,” said Sue Whitty, a family psych-mental health nurse practitioner and president of Mental Health America Dubuque. “It just causes us to be more on a state of alert and try to intervene and prevent and educate.”

In 2017, the most recent year for which the CDC reported data, 478 Iowans died by suicide. Suicide rates were 15 per 100,000 residents per year in Iowa; 11.2 per 100,000 in Illinois and 15.4 per 100,000 in Wisconsin. Those figures represent, respectively, 45%, 35% and 40% increases since 1999.

State officials are drawing heightened attention to the issue in September, which is Suicide Prevention Month.

RISK FACTORS

There often is no single cause of a suicide, but factors that increase people’s risk include mental and physical health problems; loss of employment, housing or a relationship, and substance abuse.

“Currently, what we see, people enter substance-abuse treatment when their substance use is out of control, which really increases the risk factors for suicide,” said Deb Prier, executive director of Substance Abuse Services Center, a Dubuque-based substance and gambling addiction treatment provider.

Rural communities also are at heightened risk. About 20% of the country’s population live in rural areas where mental health resources can be insufficient.

Grant and Iowa counties in southwest Wisconsin are considered to have provider shortages. There is one provider for about every 1,250 people in Grant County and one for nearly every 2,000 people in Iowa County.

But throwing more providers at the problem is not a cure-all, said Jeff Lockhart, director of Unified Community Services.

“It’s really the broader societal issues that are driving this trend across the nation,” he said.

He pointed to isolation as an example.

Rural areas, in particular, see greater levels of social fragmentation as measured by the prevalence of single- person households, unmarried residents and transient residents, according to researchers.

Creating a comprehensive suicide prevention strategy is hampered because suicide rates are increasing irrespective of gender, race and age, said Iowa Department of Public Health Suicide Prevention Director Pat McGovern.

“If it was just college-age kids, during the semester we could focus our resources and really work with that group to identify or address what’s going on, but when it’s the lifespan, when it’s statewide, it makes it so much harder,” he said.

NEW STATE EFFORTS

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers issued a proclamation Friday stating that the state needs to invest in “much-needed” mental health resources, particularly for children and farmers.

The state’s budget-writing committee last week approved spending $200,000 for increased farmer mental health access over the next two years. An additional $100,000 will be provided for counseling vouchers, farmer workshops and mental-health-provider training.

A state Speaker’s Task Force on Suicide Prevention held its final meeting Monday. The group will evaluate Wisconsin’s current prevention efforts and develop recommendations for treatment and prevention options.

Meanwhile, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed legislation in August that directs the state Department of Public Health to coordinate suicide prevention, intervention and postvention programs and services across the state.

The Iowa Department of Public Health is implementing a “Zero Suicide” training program in September with substance-abuse-treatment providers statewide.

“Each organization will do an internal review and assessment and work to make changes,” McGovern said. “It will engage everyone in the organization from the highest-level executive setting the policies … to secretaries to the janitors.”

In an in-patient setting, for example, policy changes might focus on reducing patient waiting times or ensuring patients are not left alone.

“It’s to make people more aware,” he said. “So often we don’t have the time or the resources to stop and think and look critically at our system.”

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