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Suicide's local impact

Communities struggle to provide outreach
By: Raheem Hosseini
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DJ Peterson was leaving a gas station in El Dorado Hills when someone called out his name. It was a young man, Peterson remembers, well dressed and looking as if he was on his way to a job interview. Instead the young man, who had been friends with Peterson's sons at Oak Ridge High School, was returning from a funeral. The young man's 18-year-old friend had committed suicide. "He pointed his finger into his mouth like the kid had shot himself," Peterson recalled. Peterson is the project director for the Vision Coalition of El Dorado Hills, which has a goal of reaching out to youth before serious problems develop. "We are not immune because we have sort of an upscale community," Peterson said. "There are young people who are feeling desperate, who need someone to talk to." One week in June saw five suicide attempts in Folsom and two successful suicides - one in Folsom and one in El Dorado Hills. The former involved a Folsom High School student who leapt off a bridge, while the latter occurred when a man intentionally crashed his sport utility vehicle into the front of a Serrano residence. A recent study by EMT Associates Inc., a research and consulting firm in Folsom, showed El Dorado Hills to be outpacing the state average in suicides. Between 2002 and 2004, the community saw 12.1 suicides per 100,000 residents compared to the state average of 9.4 per 100,000, putting El Dorado Hills in the middle of the pack. The Sacramento County Coroner's Office has recorded 113 reported suicides so far this year, compared to 132 in 2005 and 136 in 2004. According to the state Department of Health Services' Center for Health Statistics, suicide deaths decreased nearly one percent between 2003 and 2004, but continued to rank 10th among the leading causes of death in California. There were 3,396 suicides reported in the state in 2004. These numbers remain troubling. "It's been pretty much constant over the last couple of years," Lynn Zender of the Family Service Agency's Suicide Prevention Crisis Line said of the amount of calls that come into the center. The crisis line provides services free of charge to the residents of Sacramento, El Dorado and Placer counties 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The roughly 10,000 calls the crisis line receives each year have painted a picture for Zender. "It tells us the older adult group, which is the population most likely to commit suicide, is the least apt to call," she said. "It tells us that teens do call, but not consistent with their suicide rate." In other words, more outreach needs to be done for both of these groups. The problem for many local agencies is the funding dollars simply aren't allocated. Though the crisis line serves residents of three counties, it receives funding from only two. "We get zero funding from El Dorado County," Zender said. And when budgets get tight, mental health services are often the first ones to be cut. "I don't know why it's easy to cut, but it seems to be," Zender said of mental health programs. The Family Service Agency received a grant a couple of years ago to print up brochures, but has since eaten through all of those dollars. "It's kind of hard to do outreach without any printable materials," she said. And with no line item help on the horizon, the private sector must pick up where the public one falters. Peterson says his coalition is in the midst of conducting a needs assessment for the community and is trying to organize other agencies into being more directed in offering youth services. A national survey shows school connectedness is the number one way to prevent issues like drug and alcohol use, issues of bullying and suicide among the country's youth. The honest truth, though, is that not every youth feels connected to the schools they attend. "Those are the kids who are left behind," said Peterson. "Those are the ones that will get into trouble. Those are the ones that we need to reach." For more information about the coalition's efforts or how to participate, visit www.edhvisioncoalition.org.