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Suicide attempts a growing problem in DeKalb County

Published: Monday, Feb. 25, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT • Updated: Monday, Feb. 25, 2013 1:49 p.m. CDT

DeKALB – Jason Nicol sees a disturbing trend sweeping DeKalb County that is going largely unnoticed: suicide attempts.

Nicol, executive director of the Youth Service Bureau in DeKalb, said two of the top three concerns his staff has identified in the area’s youth and families are suicidal tendencies and self injury – an observation supported by county statistics.

In 2010, DeKalb police responded to 110 suicide attempts. In 2012, that number increased to 162. Countywide, successful suicide attempts doubled from five in 2010 to 10 in 2012. Nicol said a variety of factors from mental health issues to the increase in fractured families are causing the increase.

He said in each of the past three years, 27 percent of the youth that come to his organization for counseling suffer from self injury, suicidal thinking or behavior, lack of self-esteem and depression.

“It’s not a fun topic to talk about or to think about,” Nicol said. “But we need to find a nonprovocative way of keeping it in the forefront of people’s minds and educating them about the signs and symptoms.”

Nicol said the message about suicide prevention and recognizing alarming signs needs to be directed at youth. He said people such as teachers and school counselors do a good job recognizing those at risk, but are not always as effective as breaking through to youth as their own peers.

While the focus of suicide prevention needs to be on young people and adults, he said, efforts would be more effective by addressing the issues early in a person’s life.

“We just did a presentation at the YMCA where someone who struggled with suicidal thoughts talked about how she started cutting herself as a freshman in high school,” Nicol said. “Kids need to be educated about these issues so they are empowered to take action and get that person help.”

Unfortunately, those resources are limited by the amount of financial support available, said Jeff Whelan, a member of the DeKalb County Mental Health Board.

Whelan said the board received an increase in funding for the first time in four years in 2012, but it was only a $15,000 bump to roughly $2.1 million overall. For an organization charged with funding more than 50 programs focused on mental and emotional disorders, alcohol or drug dependence, and developmental disabilities, it is hard to sufficiently support prevention programs for any one disease.

Compounding the problem, Whelan said, is the lack of state support and closures of major resources such as the Singer Mental Health facility in Rockford and Kishwaukee Community Hospital’s psychiatric ward.

Whelan said he would love to see more funding for mental health issues but it is unlikely because it would require a tax increase and some people still believe mental health diseases are made up and not true illnesses.

“It’s really difficult to understand unless you know someone with a mental health problem,” Whelan said of the seriousness of such diseases.

As resources decline, more responsibility falls on police officers, who are often the first people to contact a person threatening suicide. DeKalb Police Cmdr. John Petragallo said interacting with suicidal people has become a larger part of officer training because of the increase in calls.

While officers do their best to defuse the situation and direct the person to resources such as counseling or hospital treatment, Petragallo said there is only so much that can be done when the available resources are stretched thin.

“When we respond to the same house several times, that tells us the person is not getting help they need,” Petragallo said. “We know there is a need in our community for these services. To see some of the cuts come about, that is on the officers’ minds.”

Need help? Here are some community resources.

• Family Service Agency: 815-758-8616

• Ben Gordon Center (regular hours): 815-756-4875

• 24-hour crisis center hotline at the Ben Gordon Center: 1-866-242-0111

• National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255

• The Ben Gordon Center has an online mental health screening tool at www.bengordoncenter.org

• People can also reach out to local religious entities for help.

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