By Carol Wolfenbarger
President, Mission Hospital McDowell
Everything came to a screeching standstill on that day in 1984, when my younger sister decided to take her own life. After all, we were close and had survived a myriad of trials in our young lives – together. The swirl of emotions, doubt, grief, questions, anger, the “what ifs,” the “why did I not see it as a nurse,” all bombarded my mind, heart and soul. These feelings weren’t present just in that moment, or the following year, but for many years to come. It’s a grief journey that is never really complete.
Recovery is tumultuous for someone who survives the loss of a loved one from suicide. The subject of suicide is one that is difficult to even think about, let alone discuss. The stubborn cultural stigma surrounding suicide, depression and mental health issues has been slow to dissipate. These topics were long shunned in polite conversation, and sadly, when people are discouraged from talking about these painful but important topics, it only adds to the shame they feel, especially if they’re in crisis.
October 7-13 is Mental Illness Awareness Week and the October 11 is National Depression Screening Day, so this is the time to learn that few are untouched by suicide. In fact, in 2016 alone there were almost twice as many suicides in the United States as homicides, and the rate of suicide has risen a staggering 30 percent just since 1998 each according to the National Institute of Mental Health. In McDowell County, our 2011-2015 suicide rate is, tragically, trending higher than both the state average and the previous measurement period, rising to 18.7 per 100,000 people. Fortunately, there is a call to action. The 2015 North Carolina Plan to Prevent Suicide received input from 180 diverse key stakeholders, and was published to provide citizens with education and suicide prevention strategies (See here).
Goal 9 of the North Carolina Plan to Prevent Suicide, aimed at treatment and support, is to promote and implement effective clinical and professional practices for assessing and treating those identified as being at risk for suicide. As part of Mission Health’s relentless focus on improving the health of our communities, this is one of our highest priorities across all of our care settings. Patients presenting for care at Mission Hospital McDowell emergency department or in any of our Mission Community Medicine clinics are screened for potential risk for suicide. If the patient’s assessment indicates risk, additional resources will be provided as we strive to achieve a target of “Zero Suicide.” Those resources to care for patients in crisis include a specially designed safe area in our emergency department where we can continually observe those patients who are at risk and promote each patient’s safety, training for our team to increase knowledge and awareness of suicide, and the use of telemedicine to connect patients with needed psychiatry services. It is our commitment to partner with our community to reduce – and ultimately eliminate – suicide.
There is no single cause for suicide. It is important for all of us to be aware of the signs that someone may be thinking about suicide. Look for changes in behavior or the presence of entirely new behaviors. If anyone you know talks about suicidal feelings, or should you ever have them yourself, it is important that you seek care immediately, talk to a loved one or your doctor, or contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
Together, let’s be on a journey to make our community healthier by putting an end to suicide.
Carol Wolfenbarger, MSN, RN, FACHE, is President of Mission Hospital McDowell. She holds both Bachelors and Masters of Science degrees in nursing administration from the University of Tennessee, is board certified in Healthcare Management and is a Fellow of the American College of Healthcare Executives (ACHE). Carol, who has served hospitals and health systems for more than three decades, has worked to add full-time cardiology services, led growth in outpatient services including imaging and surgery, and the expansion of primary care offering in Burke County since assuming her role as President at McDowell Hospital in 2015. She is an active member in Rotary and serves as a Board member for the Rutherford/Polk/McDowell Health District Board of Directors, the Corpening YMCA Board of Directors, and the McDowell County Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors.