Public safety officials, health care professionals work to address mental health access

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Public safety officials, health care professionals work to address mental health access
Image description
Public safety officials, health care professionals work to address mental health access
Image description
Public safety officials, health care professionals work to address mental health access
Since 2000, 32 people have jumped 145 feet from the Natchez Trace Parkway Bridge in northwest Franklin to their deaths, according to state officials.

To help prevent further deaths, Gov. Bill Lee signed in April a joint resolution from the Tennessee House and Senate petitioning the federal government to install barriers around the bridge’s railing.

“Thirty-two folks have committed suicide out there, and we determined it was a health hazard for our state,” said state Rep. Sam Whitson, R-Franklin, who sponsored the resolution. “It’s a beautiful structure, but they call it a suicide magnet.”

Data from the Franklin Police Department show that while suicide attempts have decreased from five-year high of 72 attempts in 2015, completed suicides reported to the department have more than doubled from four suicides in 2014 to nine in 2018. Through April of this year, the department has already responded to three suicides.

From 2012-17, suicides across the state have risen more than 21%, from 956 to 1,163, which represents the highest rate in the past 35 years, according to the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network. Williamson County ranks ninth in the state for most suicides at 28 in 2017, up 12% from 2012, according to TSPN.

However, of these deaths, only a small fraction—1.6%—are caused by jumping from a height, according to a 2019 TSPN report. While some have argued physical barriers around these large structures can be a deterrent for suicide, officials and medical professionals argue the issue is not related to the safety of tall structures, but a lack of affordability and access to mental health care.

The Refuge Center for Counseling, a nonprofit therapy office in Franklin, is seeking to build a 15,000-square-foot facility to help provide more affordable services in the area.

“We think, okay, [Williamson County is the] seventh-wealthiest county; everybody here can afford therapy. We just find so often that is absolutely not the case,” said Amy Alexander, co-founder and executive director of The Refuge Center. “We’ve had so many people write hardship requests where their business has foreclosed … then they’re just in a real financial bind—and they need more help than ever.”

Calls for help

In her 12 years with the Franklin Police Department, Chief Deborah Faulkner said her department has seen a significant number of calls for police assistance for suicide threats in the area.

“I had not been working here very long that it seemed like—I have a program on my phone that alerts me to sort of high-impact calls—I kept seeing suicide attempts, suicide threat, suicide, suicide, suicide,” Faulkner said. “I kept seeing that a lot.”

While not unique to the area, Faulkner said in many cases in Franklin, the police department is often the first call people make when there is a suicide threat, making police officers a key part of suicide prevention.

“I became very much interested. It became a high priority with me,” Faulkner said. “And the more I looked at it, the more I reached out to other law enforcement, chiefs, sheriffs and so on. And what I’ve come to know is that law-enforcement officers are not only on the threshold of a mental health crisis, but actually in the middle of it.”

The TSPN reports suicide is one of the leading causes of death for all age groups across the state; however for young people ages 10-19, it is the second leading cause of death.

“What’s really heart-wrenching is when it’s our youth,” Faulkner said. “Williamson County is fairly high up, if not No. 1 in children committing suicide between the ages of 14 and 19. [I’ve] listened to some of the young people who tell their story, and you know, it’s heart-wrenching to think that they’re in their teens; they haven’t even experienced life yet, and yet they’re ready to take it.”

Faulkner said the number of calls for service have sparked the need for additional training in her department to help officers deal with different scenarios.

“Our officers need to be especially trained to know how to deal with whatever critical situation that that person is experiencing,” she said. “So, what I elected to do is devote to it two days of training to all of our police officers to deal with critical incidents. We use people from the [Veterans Affairs] hospital, actors, volunteers that will come in and play out different scenarios. Then we have officers who are especially trying to add all this additional training who can critique and sort of evaluate how they responded to that person, how they handled the situation, what they could have done better, what they could have said.”

Faulkner said the city also works on de-escalation techniques to help individuals in volatile cases get safely to a health care professional.

“To get the help that they desperately need is an amazing piece of training and a trait that our officers have,” she said. “I don’t have all the answers. I just want to get the problem out there; I want people to be keenly aware; and I want them to know that their police department cares enough about this problem.”

Social stigma, increased demand

Whether it is due to an emergency, a lack of access or other reasons, health care professionals said emergency services are the most affected when a patient does not have access to mental health resources, which is often not a long-term solution for patients dealing with mental health issues.

“The consequences are you’re going to have more people in the emergency room, and the emergency rooms aren’t usually set up to deliver behavioral health services very well,” said Dr. Joe Parks, medical director for the National Council for Behavioral Health.

However, demand for counseling and therapy services is on the rise, and increased services could help in reducing calls for emergency services and suicide prevention. Alexander said The Refuge expects to treat about 3,400 people in the area this year alone. However, there is still a wait list for a new patient to be seen, which has about 85 to 110 people at any given time.

One of the causes for the rise in demand for mental health care is the continued destigmatization of mental health issues, which makes people more comfortable in asking for help, Parks said.

“I think the reason is people now see mental illness—depression in particular, and also anxiety—as being treatable,” Parks said. “We stigmatize those things that make us feel helpless, like the HIV epidemic—when we didn’t know to treat it we stigmatized it much more powerfully than we do now. Now, that we know how to treat it, we’re not scared to death of it and keeping it at arm’s length.”

Parks said while the area’s mental health services do not yet meet the current needs, he believes continued demand will lead to a shift in services.

“If the demand is there over time, I think you’ll get more work force, and I think demand is certainly way up,” he said. “I think people are more willing and interested in getting treatment for their mental health conditions, and that releases pent-up demand. This big increase in demand has created a shortage, but I think over time it will lead to increased access.”

Alexander said increased access is one of the reasons The Refuge is looking to expand to a larger building on Lone Lane. A zoning proposal for the center is expected to come up for approval during the Franklin Board of Mayor and Aldermen’s July meetings. While residents have protested the rezoning—arguing the center will bring more traffic to what is currently a residential area— Alexander said the center is working to get community support for the center to help The Refuge get city approval.

“We have a huge vision. We want to double our capacity, and we want to be the premier counseling organization in the state of Tennessee, if not the country,” she said. “This vision that we have for this campus—which we would love to cut the ribbon [on] in two years— accomplishes that, but it’s a $6.3 million vision. And we do desperately need people who say, ‘[mental health care] is my thing.’”

Editor's note: an earlier version of this story stated 32 people had committed suicide from the Natchez bridge since 2010, the correct year is 2000.
By Wendy Sturges
A Houston native and graduate of St. Edward's University in Austin, Wendy Sturges has worked as a community journalist covering local government, health care, business and development since 2011. She has worked with Community Impact since 2015 as a reporter and editor and moved to Tennessee in 2019.


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