CMU College of Medicine leads in addressing rural suicides

Virtual tools, community partnerships play critical roles

| Author: Eric Baerren | Media Contact: Shannon Vautrin

Between 2014-18, more than 6,700 Michiganders died from suicide. It was the state’s 10th leading cause of death.

Adult men accounted for two-thirds of those deaths.

Preventing Suicide in Michigan Men, a statewide partnership to which the Central Michigan University College of Medicine is a founding member, would like to cut that by 10 percent by next year. The partnership, funded through a five-year Centers for Disease Control grant, is being led by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

The college’s contribution to PRiSMM is in helping providers spot the signs of someone in imminent crisis and through partnerships that attack the stigma of seeking mental health care.

Telehealth toolkit

Rural men are especially vulnerable to suicide. While rural populations have the same rate of mental health problems, they face additional barriers.

The most significant barrier is a shortage of providers. According to a 2020 study, there are no psychiatrists in 65 percent of non-metropolitan counties.

One possible solution was birthed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“When COVID hit, everything was thrown into telehealth,” said Alison Arnold, director of the Interdisciplinary Center for Community Health & Wellness.

That includes mental health. That also created the opportunity to cross that geography virtually rather than physically, with to provided specialty services, including connecting people living in northern Michigan with CMU Health psychiatrists.

Through PRiSMM, the college developed a toolkit for telehealth providers. The toolkit is intended to train providers in protocols to help reduce suicides and to spot patients headed for an imminent crisis.

Its use isn’t limited to psychiatrists. An estimated 45 percent of people who die by suicide have visited their primary care physician within the month prior to their death. Providing the toolkit to other health providers enables them to identify people who may not seek mental health care but are at risk for a crisis.

It also means addressing the stigma associated with seeking mental health care by men.

Addressing the stigma

Jeff Larsen was in a dark place. After eight years as a teacher – a job he loved – he struggled with questions about whether he had failed as a person. He felt the urge to start the car in his garage and go to sleep.

“The thing that saved me from the ultimate worst was that a friend, a young friend, had lost a loved one early in their life to suicide,” he said in a testimonial video for the iMatter Anti-Stigma campaign. “And that always thankfully stayed with me.”

iMatter aims to reduce the stigma associated with seeking help for mental health issues through testimonial videos featuring the stories of people who previously sought help. It’s one of the tools the Great Lakes Bay Region Alliance uses in support of the PRiSMM partnership, said Dr. Matt Samocki, executive director of the Great Lakes Bay Region Mental Health Partnership, to which the college is a partner.

Helping people recognize when they need assistance is part of the college’s comprehensive strategy to reduce suicide. Larsen’s testimonial is part of that, Samocki said.

“I chose to share my story because of stigma,” Larsen said. “When I was growing up the idea of mental health was that professionals were ‘shrinks’ and you only saw them if you were crazy.”

Larsen’s is just one of several testimonials posted. In the coming months, Samocki said they have several more storytellers who will be sharing their lived experiences about their journeys of recovery from mental health challenges or mental illness that will also be tied to messages of hope and mental health wellbeing, support and care resources.

The goal is to cut the stigma of seeking care and paired with the toolkit for telehealth providers to help reduce suicides among Michigan men by 10 percent.