During an approximately six-month time frame spanning from summer 2018 through February of this year, there were 13 confirmed suicides in the greater Columbus area.
The youngest person lost was 13 and the oldest well beyond 50, according to Jill Colegrove, clinical supervisor of the Columbus Area Local Outreach to Suicide Survivors (LOSS) team.
Since its February inception, the volunteer-comprised team consisting of trained and mental health professionals have been working to bring immediate assistance and support to those who have been directly impacted by loss associated with suicide.
On Tuesday morning, the Platte County Board of Supervisors unanimously allocated $2,500 from its new budget cycle – starting July 1 – to benefit the organization by covering a hefty chunk of its yearly budget that goes toward providing the basic necessities to individuals and families coping in the aftermath of a friend or loved one taking his or her own life.
The first LOSS team was founded in 2009 in Lincoln and about 10 more have sprouted up around the state in the years following.
“This is new to Columbus, though,” Colegrove said, addressing the board. “We just went live - and when I say live it takes a process to get everything up and going and get our people trained – in February … We have the LOSS team and we also have an advisory council, as well.”
Colegrove said the LOSS team is comprised of other individuals who’ve been directly affected by suicide. The volunteer team is activated by first response officials when a suicide occurs to provide resources, support and hope to suicide survivors, according to information provided by Colegrove. LOSS team members provided immediate assistance to survivors to help them cope with the trauma of their loss, provide follow-up contact with survivors and coordinate the utilization of services and support groups within the community.
The group is able to effectively aid people in these crisis situations because they have been forced to deal with similar ones themselves at some point in their lives.
“We are people that have been in a situation similar to what they are experiencing,” Colegrove said. “We always say that it’s a club that nobody wants to be part of, but you can relate and identify. So my team talks with them, they answer questions, they help them provide hope, they give them resources …”
The advisory team, she added, does most of the behind-the-scenes work. This work includes manning the 24/7 phone hotline, compiling brochures and handouts and additional informational items provided to families. Some of those include books and DVDs and other materials designed to help children deal with what they are feeling in the wake of a suicide.
“We have this book that is called “Grief is like a Snowflake” that is very good for kids,” Colegrove said. “Kids underneath the age of 12 really seem to struggle with the concept of grief and loss, and these are great resources for them.”
Platte County Deputy Attorney Elizabeth Lay, who works directly with the Board of Supervisors, addressed the officials and noted how she encouraged Colegrove and her organization to come before the governing body because mental health is something that is a priority to herself and county officials as a whole.
“I am on the advisory committee and they came to me because of my work in the community over the last six years since I’ve been here with mental health,” Lay said. “And as you guys all know, that is a call that is really near and dear to my heart. And I think that we have made a lot of strides with the efforts that we’ve made in our office to try to get as much help for your constituents – not just the people in Columbus but also the people in Platte County as a whole.
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“And I think that we have done a lot to help reduce the stigma around calling for help, help family members understand that there (are) places that they can go to get help if they need help.”
Lay added that during the past six years, the Platte County Attorney’s Office has become a resource for community members who need help with mental health. Being on the LOSS advisory committee, Lay said that her biggest concern is that monetary resources will be an ongoing roadblock in terms of the LOSS team fulfilling its mission.
“Even though the LOSS team can fundraise, I have a fear that they won’t be able to fundraise enough to cover their basic expenses,” she said. “And the quality of the work they do with suicide survivors is so important to ensure that we don’t have more suicides, or if there are other people suffering from mental health (problems) in those extended families that they now know that they have a resource that they can go to so that maybe we can actually prevent a suicide in the future.”
Prior to Colegrove addressing the governing body, Lay spoke with a representative of State Auditor Charlie Janssen’s office to determine the legality of it providing resources to the LOSS team. She was informed that it’s just like providing dollars to a nonprofit such as a county historical society or anyone else as long as a contract is produced that determines what the money can be allocated for.
“I wanted to make sure that was going to be OK before I suggested they bring it before you guys,” Lay said. “But, from my office and from my perspective working with this, I have seen probably a 500-percent increase in the amount of calls I get from family members looking for help."
In dire situations, law enforcement is contacted directly, but there are instances that aren’t to that level yet - it’s families who see a family member or situation escalating and need somewhere to reach out for help.
“Ensuring that people understand that there are resources out there is extremely important and I would think that the board would have an interest in that," Lay said.
District 7 Supervisor Kim Kwapnioski inquired whether other funding avenues were pursued prior to coming before the board. Colegrove noted that a Region 4 Behavioral Health System grant jump-started the Columbus Area LOSS Team, but that funding from the organization expires in September. This, she said, is why the LOSS Team is in the process of figuring out what its next steps are going to be.
Board Chairman Jerry Engdahl, as part of the money approval process (typically required for other agencies receiving county dollars) noted that the board will require a report breaking down where the money goes and specifics regarding its use.
Kwapnioski said she believes the money will have a real impact in the county and that services provided by the LOSS Team may pay real dividends with not only helping families deal with the loss of a suicide but getting in front of a mental health problem before it spirals out of control.
“I believe that as a county we need to be more proactive than reactive with these circumstances,” Kwapnioski said. “Mental health is a huge issue and we need to continue to support it and be a part of (finding solutions).”
Sam Pimper is the news editor of The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at email@example.com.