By Julie Mack
In 2018, 1,364 Michigan residents died of suicide -- a 44% increase since 1999.
That’s higher than the death toll from motor-vehicle accidents. Two and a half times higher than the number of Michigan homicides. Suicide is now the 10th leading cause of death in Michigan, and it’s the second-leading cause of death among Michigan residents age 15 to 24.
“Michigan lags in the nation in too many critical areas” when it comes to suicide prevention, John Urso said in opening remarks Thursday at a three-day suicide prevention conference in Plymouth.
“There’s no state funding support for suicide prevention,” Urso said. "There’s no mandated or funded suicide prevention training for teachers, even though a bill was presented in the state Legislature two years ago.
“Michigan’s mental-health system remains underfunded and under capacity,” he added. “People don’t understand the system, or where to turn for help when they need it."
While the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has called for reducing the number of suicides by 20% by 2025, “it’s safe to say that if we have any hope (of meeting that goal), it’s going to take to take an extraordinary amount of advocacy.”
And advocacy was a primary goal of the conference, which is being sponsored by Kevin’s Song, the nonprofit that Urso and his wife Gail founded after lost their 41-year-old son Kevin to suicide in 2013.
“We need to develop systems in Michigan that will address that issue, systems that will hopefully raise awareness and come up with prevention models that will allow people to intervene in somebody’s life," Urso told MLive.
The good news: The issue of suicide prevention is finally getting some traction in Lansing, he said.
In December, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed legislation creating a commission to come up with a comprehensive suicide prevention program, updating a plan for the first time in more than a decade. The state also is creating a statewide mental-health hotline that will be available 24/7 for people in crisis.
“It feels like it’s finally getting attention,” Gail Urso said.
And none too soon, said Robert Sheehan, CEO of the Community Mental Health Association of Michigan and one of the conference speakers.
“Only recently have we started to say that maybe government has a role in suicide,” he said. "For decades, suicide prevention in America was based on the hope that every family would take care of itself, and best of luck.
“I hope we’re over that,” Sheehan said. “Government does have a role."
He said that are powerful societal and economic factors in suicide, noting that suicide rates tend to be higher in economically depressed communities.
“There are patterns in American society that prevent suicide and that foster it,” he said.
Sheehan said he’s hopeful about new initiatives in Lansing to coordinate local suicide-prevention efforts, including initiatives being led by Lindsey DeCamp, the state’s full-time coordinator of suicide prevention programs for youths, a new position created with money from a federal grant.
DeCamp, who also spoke at the conference, said MDHHS has several goals in trying to address youth suicides.
“We want to promote suicide prevention as a core component of health care,” she said. That includes supporting those affected by suicide attempts, as well as identifying and treating those at risk of a suicide.
Yet another goal is gathering better data on suicide and suicide attempts, and evaluating the effectiveness of various prevention and treatment approaches, DeCamp said.
The federal grant also provides money to fund programs in helping health-care professionals assess and treat patients at risk of suicide, she said. “Hopefully those trainings will be going on throughout the state soon.”
The Ursos are involved in the commission developing the state’s new suicide-prevention plan, and say they hope to leverage the resources in their nonprofit to implement it.
While there are hundreds of suicide-prevention programs across Michigan, the Ursos said, they would like to see more cohesion and consistency around the state.
For instance, John Urso said, more police officers die by suicide than in the line of duty.
“What that tells us that first responders need something where they can relieve the emotional stress of their job,” he said. “That’s something we should be looking at. Some departments have that, but there is no mandate."
As another example, there is no requirement now in Michigan for therapists such as clinical social workers and licensed professional counselors to take coursework in suicide awareness and prevention, he said.
“At this point, the challenges still outweigh the progress” in suicide prevention, Urso said.
The conference is continuing through Saturday at the Inn at St. Johns in Plymouth.