Celebrity deaths put suicide prevention in the spotlight

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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) The recent deaths of designer Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain have sparked a conversation about suicide prevention and what people can do to get help.

First Call for Chittenden County takes more than 10,000 calls per year. This May alone, they took more than 2,000 calls. Staff members say their numbers have been consistently high but the crisis hotline wants the community to know that they are here and ready to help.

Behind the desks in the Howard Center at First Call for Chittenden County, the caller defines the crisis.

"People don't know what is going to be on the other end of the phone. They're worried about stigma or judgment, what could happen," Charlotte McCorkel said.

McCorkel is the Project Director for Integration at the Howard Center. She is one of the nearly 30 employees at First Call working to help those in need on a wide variety of issues, including suicidal thoughts. Twenty of those staff members are full-time master's level clinicians, answering the phones.

"We really want people to know that we're here to help, to provide that support, be judgment-free and we have resources to help connect people to be in a better place," McCorkel said.

They also offer lockboxes for medication to prevent overdosing, gun locks and a new booklet with information on risk factors, warning signs and much more, distributed throughout the community. But at the center of First Call are the phones. Right now, calls are sent through an answering service to pagers to clinicians. Then they have a maximum of 15 minutes to respond.

"At first, we want to provide reassurance," McCorkel explained. "We're really glad someone has called to help and we want to let them know that and then we're gonna start by having a conversation and asking questions."

Those questions can lead to multiple paths, whether it be a one-on-one meeting, even a follow-up with that individual's doctor.

"If there is an immediate safety concern, we need to be able to know that so we can help keep that person safe and want to understand how long the problem has been going on if it has occurred before and what has been helpful and what might help in this situation," McCorkel said.

She says growing need in the community means it takes longer now to get those one-on-one meetings but she believes most suicides in Vermont are from those who are not connected to their local agency like the Howard Center.

"There is so much stigma around talking about suicide," McCorkel said. "That's the message we want to give to the community-- that it's OK to talk about it."

If you or someone you know is struggling, First Call for Chittenden County operates 24/7. The number to call 802-488-7777.

HOW YOU CAN HELP

So how do you know if someone is contemplating suicide and what do you do?

Experts say there are many signs to look out for, including looking for a way to kill oneself, feeling hopeless or having no purpose, talking about being a burden to others, extreme mood swings and more. Warning signs are associated with suicide but may not be what caused suicide.

You want to make sure not to leave this person alone, remove dangerous objects like weapons and, if needed, get them to an emergency room or medical facility.

First Call staff members say the key is to be transparent with someone you think may be considering taking their own life.

"If you're worried about a friend or a loved one, it's OK to ask them, 'Are you having thoughts about suicide?' And asking that shows that you're comfortable having that conversation and can connect to that person, stay with them, reach out to professional resources," McCorkel advised.

There are also concerns about news coverage increasing the likelihood of suicide among at-risk people. The use of language is important. McCorkel says that saying someone "died by suicide" is much more appropriate than using terms like "committed suicide." McCorkel says that's because the word commit has a more positive connotation and is associated with things like marriage.

Again, if you or someone you know needs these services, First Call can be reached 24/7 at 802-488-7777. Or click the links below.

The Howard Center

Crisis text line

Suicide Prevention Across the Lifespan, a Resource and Information Guide

CDC: Suicide rates rising across the U.S.