I am fully aware as I work to represent our entire town in the state Legislature that Leavenworth has a unique mix of backgrounds and situations, many of which can exacerbate mental health conditions. Leavenworth has too many celebrated and everyday heroes who may be facing a situation that they feel is more than they can handle, and too many are contemplating taking their own lives. Leavenworth has the fourth highest suicide rate in Kansas, and all of us probably know of someone who has committed suicide. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for people ages 25-34 and the third-leading cause for 10- to 24-year-olds.
Leavenworth is particularly vulnerable to the risk factors associated with possible suicides. Retiring military are faced with a re-entry into a less structured and more uncertain civilian life. Local economic conditions do not always offer living wage jobs to those struggling to provide for their families. Those completing their sentencing face a life outside of prison with the realities of going straight. PTSD affects those who have experienced extreme trauma.
There is a stigma in our society that mental illness is a weakness and not a real treatable condition. This is simply not true.
Some folks from the Leavenworth County Suicide Prevention Coalition shared a few common myths and facts with me. The first myth is that men are more likely to feel suicidal than women. However, the facts show that while men are four times more likely to kill themselves than women, women actually attempt suicide three times more often than men.
Another myth is that any improvement that a person has following a suicide attempt or crisis means that the risk is over. This is simply not the case. The fact is that the highest risk time period for a person to re-attempt taking his or her own life is immediately after a hospitalization for a suicide attempt.
Finally, there is a myth that people who talk about suicide don’t complete suicide. Fact is many people who die by suicide have given definite warnings to family and friends of their intentions. I’ve had friends commit suicide and it is a devastating act to those left behind. One was a great friend from college. He was successful, had a wonderful wife and kids and was funny. He committed suicide a few years ago. I never could figure out why he took his own life and I never will, but I saw the tragic impact of his death on everyone in his life.
Religion and faith can play a positive role in assisting those who are dealing with mental stress and depression. Encouraging influences can come from a congregation that provides hope through faith and fellowship and should not be underestimated. The support that people within a community can give to one another is essential, as no one has to face any situation alone.
I also fully support efforts like the benefit concert Aug. 26 by the premier Lynyrd Skynyrd tribute band Edge of Forever. They have partnered with local VFW Post 56 to promote increased awareness about the issue of suicide, and have been performing benefit concerts for suicide awareness and prevention organizations.
The VA is a valuable resource for members in our community. While the VA has many strengths, it still is developing its capacity to treat mental issues among veterans. The state must recognize that there is a societal benefit to providing services to those who, if left untreated, will either commit or be the victims of horrible crimes. We have seen it locally. Yet the state Legislature struggles with providing a solid network of resources and facing this important issue.
Kansas still struggles with prioritizing mental health services. Thankfully, last session, the Kansas Legislature passed some bills targeting longer term mental health service improvement. SB 100 changed the Nurse Service Scholarship program, giving a higher priority to training future mental health nurses. SB 32 made it easer for medical students specializing in general and children’s psychiatry to pay off their education loans if they worked in state mental health facilities. Another law, House Sub. for SB 101, allows a sexual assault victim to be compensated for mental health counseling. Joey’s Law, named after an autistic young man shot by a police officer, allows autistic people to voluntarily mark their condition on their driver’s license or license plates to help officers understand possible reactions to flashing lights, sirens and stress. Finally, the Crisis Intervention Act specifies citizens can temporarily be put into a crisis intervention center with mandatory constant evaluation, based on professionals’ belief that someone is in danger or will cause danger due to mental illness or drugs.
The Guidance Center was held up as a model of effective outreach at the state level, but then had more than $1 million taken from its budget last year. Even more extreme, the state hospital at Osawatomie was shut down after inspections revealed it was woefully understaffed, unsafe and inadequate. I recognize not every system is perfect, so I’m interested in pursuing metrics that show how positive effective funding can be, and that people are stabilizing, transitioning or improving. Recently, one of the candidates for city commission talked to me about strengths-based peer counseling as an effective proactive framework for working with mental illness. I'm interested in pursuing this proactive method.
If you or someone you know is experiencing signs of mental distress or possibly even suicide, I encourage you to get help. Know that you are not alone. There are people that you can talk to privately and confidentially. The Guidance Center can be a first stop. I also encourage everyone to support the Aug. 26 event and others like it. We owe it to our community to do what we can to push mental health awareness, and suicide prevention in particular.
Rep. Jeff Pittman of Leavenworth represents the 41st District.