Brattleboro's Center for Health and Learning asks state to step up for suicide prevention

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BRATTLEBORO >> A local organization will not receive its three-year consecutive $479,000 grant that helps pay for its suicide prevention program.

Since 2011 the Center for Health and Learning has received two three-year federal grants for suicide prevention from the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial funding out of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. CHL was involved in responding to a new round of the Garret Lee Smith Memorial funding, but they did not receive it this year.

"Currently the state allocates only a $100,000 for this significant public health problem, if you consider the millions of dollars spent on other public health problems of this magnitude, that $100,000 is a very small amount of money,"said JoEllen Tarallo-Falk, Executive Director at CHL. "Funding will enable us to provide training to clinicians to identify and treat suicidally, and to support schools in offering the Lifelines curriculum along with implementing the many other strategies outlined in the Vermont Suicide Prevention Platform 2015." Further resources about this are available at vtspc.org

According to Tarallo-Falk, there are more deaths by suicide in Vermont than traffic fatalities, homicides and drownings combined. She also mentioned that it is the second leading cause of death for Vermonters ages 14 to 35, third leading cause of death for ages 35 to 44, and it is in the top seven causes of death for all Vermonters.

The Suicide Prevention Center at CHL received $100,000 in 2014 and 2015 from the state allocation, and this year, Governor Peter Shumlin's budget and the Department of Mental Health requested an additional $72,000. According to Tarallo-Falk, The House Appropriations Committee cut the new $72,000 request. The senate appropriations committee is finalizing their budget, which may reinstate the $72,000 request. In short, Tarallo-Falk says there is no longer federal funding for suicide prevention in the state of Vermont.

"(The Garrett Lee Smith Suicide Prevention grant) basically drove all of our suicide prevention work, including development of the UMatter campaign, suicide prevention campaigns in schools and staffing those trainings, the Suicide Prevention Symposium, and suicide prevention campaigns in the community," said Alexander B. Potter, Program Specialist at CHL. "The suicide prevention coalition was born out of that money."

Potter said the staff followed up with the providers of the grant to see why CHL had not received the funding and that legislators insured them suicide prevention is important to them and CHL had a solid plan of attack for the grant application, but they simply did not have enough funding this year and that it is a "rough budget year for Vermont."

Similar federal grants were awarded to 12 other organizations for the 2016-2018 period, the majority of funding will go toward tribal nations that statistically have higher suicide rates, according to Potter.

For the past 20 years, CHL has been dedicated to creating a foundation for healthy families, schools and communities in Vermont. Its work incorporates evidence-based approaches designed to foster healthy attitudes, behaviors and skills and prevent risky behaviors.

"Working with CHL has been helpful for me to heal, and I started doing it to make a difference in Leah's name," said Kelly Merrigan Short, 52. Her daughter, Leah Short, took her own life when she was 16, in 2011, since then Merrigan Short has volunteered and worked with CHL to educate others about the ugliness of suicide through her personal testimony and has provided individuals with tools on how to get help. She also has helped to inform others of the "warning signs" of someone who may be at risk of taking their own life.

Merrigan Short believes school should adopt the Lifelines programs, which is a comprehensive suicide prevention program. She also feels that suicide should not be skimmed over in health classes — that a block should be devoted to this topic.

"One of the saddest things for me, had her friends called me saying 'She's having an off day,' ... The heart-breaking thing, after that happened, I held some of her friends sobbing in my arms, saying 'She told me things, I should have known.' That's kind of what propelled me right off the bat."

For the first time in over half a decade, the Suicide Prevention Center has had to scramble for money and is looking for individual as well as corporate sponsors for the Suicide Prevention Symposium that is held in Burlington on June 29.

"This is a staggering public health problem, it's estimated that there are 32 suicide attempts for every suicide death and in Vermont this would translate to over 3000 suicide attempts being made in one year,"said Tarallo-Falk. "The costs of not addressing this problem are enormous, both in terms of the impact on health care delivery and on community mental health."

Tarallo-Falk added that there is a stigma that needs to be broken, the idea that if someone wants to kill themselves, they will find a way no matter what. Tarallo-Falk says that is a myth and 90 -percent of people who attempt suicide and get effectively diagnosed and treated, do not go on to die by suicide.

There are a few ways to donate, one in which contributors can hold something tangible and comforting — a Umatter Teddy bear. For $25, people can purchase this Teddy bear that has a tag that says, "Umatter to me."

"It's really to get people to express to others, 'You're really someone that matters to me,'" said Potter about the bear as a gift for someone.

Other donations can be sent to the tax deductible foundation, the Suicide Prevention Center or to CHL directly with a note that states it is for funding suicide prevention, at 28 Vernon Street, Suite 319, Brattleboro, VT 05301.

In addition Merrigan Short feels that there are too many people who do not know that CHL exists, including some physicians.

"15 minutes is not enough time to speak with someone," Merrigan Short said.

She added that when speaking with a doctor locally she was shocked when the doctor did not know about CHL's efforts for suicide prevention, and feels that doctors should have CHL as a resource. Merrigan Short added that in 15 minutes it is challenging for some doctors to prescribe the correct medication for their diagnosis.

"Mental illness has no one face," said Merrigan Short.

She wore a shirt that shows a tattoo on her arm that reads, "It gets better." She said is was inspired by the Semicolon Project, and their website states, "a semicolon is used when an author could've ended a sentence but chose not to," which is why some get just the semicolon tattooed on their bodies.

"My message is I know things are hard right now, but they get better," said Merrigan Short.

For questions on donating, contact CHL at 802-254-6590 or by email at info@healthandlearning.org. Those who need help are also encouraged to call 802-254-6590.

"Suicide has multiple causes and requires multiple solutions," said Tarallo-Falk. "Many of the solutions require funding and we're asking the state to take a lead."

Maddi Shaw can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext .275.


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