Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for people ages 15–24 in Nebraska, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The University of Nebraska Public Policy Center is working to decrease that trend among Nebraska’s youth by collaborating with Region V Systems and the Nebraska Department of Education on the Nebraska Youth Suicide Prevention Initiative.
The five-year project, funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, via the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act, began with a special emphasis on southeast Nebraska. The region was identified as having a disproportionately high suicide rate. The Public Policy Center was awarded the grant in 2019 and is serving a key role in managing, evaluating and tracking the impact of all local activities funded by the grant.
“We are targeting our work in two areas: one, with Region V Systems in response to the higher rate of suicide in the 16-county area, and two, with Nebraska Department of Education to fund a coordinator working with Educational Service Units to enhance the work that NDE has implemented,” said Kate Speck, senior research manager at PPC and project director. “In addition, we are offering clinical training for suicide prevention to health and behavioral health practitioners in Nebraska, supporting the state Suicide Prevention Coalition and local community response teams.”
Over the past year, the initiative has included both prevention and postvention efforts, social media awareness campaigns and community awareness. This summer, the PPC staff worked with community members and Goldenrod Printing to provide yard signs with positive messaging in a variety of languages for Lincoln’s diverse neighborhoods.
“In a perfect world, we would have zero suicides not only in our state of Nebraska, but in our country,” said Lindsey Hanlon, prevention manager with Nebraska’s Department of Health and Human Services. “Every effort that the Youth Suicide Project implements can help us bring that ultimate goal a little bit closer to reality. As a result of this project, I hope our communities become more aware of Nebraska suicide rates and embrace mental health and suicide as acceptable and normal topics to have discussions about.”
Hanlon said there are several goals for the project.
“The Youth Suicide Prevention Project directly impacts our target population by increasing awareness around mental health and suicide,” she said. “Any chance to increase awareness through digital marketing, social media, print materials and yard signs increases exposure of our messaging to instill a positive message of hope. These activities help to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health and, given the current pandemic situation, mental health and substance use issues are rising.”
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for mental health services and suicide prevention is even more vital for Nebraskans, especially school-aged youth. With that knowledge, the initiative is working on reaching out to youth with messages about how they can get help. The Public Policy Center is collaborating with Big Red Wellness and Well-being on a social media awareness campaign that coincides with World Suicide Prevention Day on Sept 10.
“People need to know there is hope and that people can and do recover,” Hanlon said. “Additionally, the trainings provided to school personnel, health care workers and community members increase the probability of impacting someone with suicidal thoughts or ideations and can help connect them with the assistance they need, thus overall potentially reducing our suicide rates — especially among our youth and young adult population.”
Region V Prevention Director Sandy Morrisey is already seeing the impact of this project and the training it has offered to the community.
“To hear youth that have attended a Question, Persuade and Refer (QPR) training say, ‘I know what to do and say now’ when someone I know says they are struggling with suicide, shows their work is having an effect,” Morrisey said.
With a higher rate of suicide among 10- to 24-year-olds, Region V hopes to see a reduction in youth suicide in their 16-county area and promote standard policies and practices that can be adapted across Nebraska. The Nebraska Department of Education ESUs are a vital part of this project’s initiative across the state. Region V is developing Hope Squads within middle/high schools, peer-to-peer support with adult oversight for resources available to all youth. With over 25 Lincoln Public Schools psychologists and social workers as trainers in QPR for staff in all schools and over 50 trainers, Region V is working to create what Morrisey describes as “a more caring environment with supports in place that assist with pulling individuals, of any age, out of isolation and/or desperation, to utilize people and resources.”
On Oct. 1 and 2, the Public Policy Center will sponsor a Zero Suicide Academy, hosting 16 health and behavioral health teams who will participate in a virtual event. During the two-day intensive academy, facilitated groups will determine best policies and practices that fit their individual organization, developing an individual approach for safer suicide care. A 12-month collaborative follow-up process will continue the work each agency initiates during the academy.
As it enters the second year of a five-year effort, the Public Policy Center is expanding its efforts to decrease the suicide rate among young people by offering trainings, public awareness campaigns and outreach efforts.
“It is our hope to continue the previous work in Nebraska to strengthen resources and ways that young Nebraskans and their families are able to seek help to prevent suicide through social media, awareness campaigns and community partnerships,” Speck said.
Community partners providing essential input for the grant activities include the Society of Care, Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, State of Nebraska Judicial Branch and Nebraska Juvenile Services.
More information about the project is available online. Individuals in need of help can contact the Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. It provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals.