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News & Press: Legislative Updates

Suicide Prevention Task Force Begins Hearings

Monday, April 29, 2019  
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April 29, Wisconsin Health News

State health officials and advocates briefed lawmakers last week on how to support suicide prevention efforts during the first public hearing of the Speaker’s Task Force on Suicide Prevention.

There were 915 suicide deaths in 2017, up from the 588 in 2000, according to the Department of Health Services.

Joanette Robertson, mental health section chief at the DHS Division of Care and Treatment Services, told lawmakers that the current system of counties providing mental health crisis services is “under-resourced” and often “piecemeal.”

DHS is considering how to enact a new framework for delivering crisis services at the state level, she said. That includes regional or statewide crisis call centers, mobile crisis units and stabilization facilities that offer short-term care for individuals who need support and observation.

Robertson also said the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline recently contacted them to find ways of increasing the capacity of crisis call centers in the state.

There were 21,000-plus calls to the lifeline that originated in the state, and 30 percent were answered by one of the four Wisconsin call centers, Robertson said.

The rest of the calls were sent to centers in other states, which don’t know local resources and often aren’t able to help people as quickly, she said.

“It’s sort of a new issue,” she said, adding there's a "crisis" due to the high volume of calls coming in at the national level.

DHS is reaching out to determine if current call centers can increase capacity, especially in Milwaukee and Dane counties. And they’re looking at ways to encourage more call centers to launch in the state.

Barb Bigalke, executive director of the Center for Suicide Awareness in Kaukauna, detailed their efforts running a texting-based emotional support service in the state. Gov. Tony Evers' budget would require the Department of Public Instruction to award a grant to the center.

Shel Gross, the retired public policy director at Mental Health America of Wisconsin, suggested policymakers invest in school-based suicide prevention programs, like training kids to recognize warning signs.

Lawmakers could also require training for school personnel and health professionals, he said. 

Dedicating funds to making gun locks or other safe storage equipment more available could help, he said. So could removing firearms for people at risk, universal background checks and waiting periods for handgun purchases. 

“If you ask most suicide prevention experts, the thing they’ll tell you is the strongest evidence-based practice for suicide prevention is separating the person who is suicidal from firearms,” he said.

Increasing the mental health workforce would help too, he added.

Gena Orlando, Wisconsin chapter chair for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention Wisconsin Chapter, called for more work on mental health parity.

On average, primary care providers in Wisconsin are reimbursed at rates 32 percent higher than behavioral healthcare providers, she said. Patients often have to go out of network to get care.

“Wisconsin must remove barriers to mental health and substance use care and coverage by ensuring parity laws are uniformly enforced across the state and across plan types,” she said.