'The hidden epidemic'

Leaders to speak at first regional suicide conference of its type

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Marny Lombard refers to suicide as "the hidden epidemic."

Lombard, an organizer of Tuesday's Achieving Zero Suicide for Our Inland Northwest Communities Conference at Gonzaga University in Spokane, hopes the first regional event of its type will shed light on suicide.

The conference, which is free and open to the public, will draw local, regional and national leaders as speakers.

Lombard lost her son, 22, to suicide in April 2013. After nearly 10 years at Gonzaga as editor of the alumni magazine, she changed her focus to advocacy for suicide prevention.

"I knew he dealt with thoughts that were suicidal; I tried to get him all the help that I could and it wasn't enough," said Lombard, adding that multiple speakers at the conference have had relatives commit suicide. "It pushes us to try to help others."

The Zero Suicide concept grew from mental health advances developed in Detroit. The depression care program resulted in two and a half years without a suicide in the Henry Ford Health System patient population. The rate of suicide in Henry Ford's patient population decreased by 75 percent from 89 per 100,000 patients to 22 per 100,000 in the first four years of the program's implementation.

"This knowledge base has become a national initiative within the suicide prevention community," Lombard said. "Usually a state health department takes it on, but we're unusual in that this is grassroots."

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the national suicide rate was 12.6 suicide deaths per 100,000 in 2012, the latest year such statistics are available. The rate in the five northern counties of Idaho was 20 per 100,000. It was the third-highest rate of seven regions in the state.

In 2010 Idaho had the sixth-highest suicide rate in the nation, according to the CDC.

"There is a huge amount of work that needs to be done," Lombard said. "We're not just teaching new skills and having people go home and tweak a few things, but we're inviting people to start a movement. We're inviting institutions, leaders, politicians, physicians and mental health providers to come to the table with the understanding that we can save lives."

Lombard said there are several theories on why suicide rates are higher in the West, including social isolation, gun availability and limited mental health resources.

Paul Quinnett, a clinical psychologist founder and CEO of the QPR (Question, Persuade and Refer) Institute in Spokane, is the conference's keynote speaker.

Post Falls Police Chief Scot Haug will speak on gun safety in a region that strongly supports the Second Amendment. He said his department, which started a suicide prevention program in 2009, offers to keep guns in safekeeping while a person is suffering from depression.

"We also have volunteer chaplains who offer both secular and faith-based materials and follow up with people in need," he said.

Lora Whalen, Panhandle Health District director, will be a moderator during the conference.

"I've witnessed some incredible advances in medical care, but some mental health issues such as suicide have remained stagnant," she said. "Suicide causes immeasurable pain, suffering and loss to individuals and families nationwide, yet suicidal behaviors often continue to be met with silence and shame."

Whalen is involved in the Suicide Prevention Action Network (SPAN), which reported that, in 2013, one in seven Idaho high school youth reported seriously considering suicide.

"Last year mental health services were expanded in Idaho Falls through state funding for a crisis center," she said. "I am hopeful that the Legislature will consider the need for additional mental health resources in North Idaho through funding a North Idaho crisis center."

Whalen hopes that, with the dialogue at the conference, attendees will learn to identify early warning signs and help treat people struggling with mood disorders or suicidal thoughts.

"Part of preventing suicide is developing and recognizing resources in our community," she said. "Achieving Zero Suicide is working to do just that by engaging the entire region because we all play a part in this battle."

Sabrina Votava, who works for the Youth Suicide Prevention Program and is an organizer of the conference, was driven to the field after the loss of two of her brothers to suicide.

"I believe this conference is just the beginning of a conversation and movement to end suicide," Votava said. "Suicide is a problem in our area, but it can change."

The conference, which will be held from 8:45 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Gonzaga's Cataldo Hall, will be hosted by Gonzaga's School of Nursing and Human Physiology, School of Education and Native American Studies.

Seating at the conference will be limited. Attendees must RSVP. Register online at www.gonzaga.edu/academics/events/zerosuicide/registration.asp.

Contact Lombard at marny.lombard@gmail.com for more information.

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