Research initiative aims to investigate the ‘why’ of suicides, to help prevent others in the future
Editor’s note: Death by suicide is a public health issue, and it is the Vail Daily’s intention to raise awareness in a responsible manner and encourage those who are at risk to seek help.
Suicide prevention workers and mental health service providers in Eagle County are asking people who have recently lost a loved one to suicide to take a difficult step: Help them to better understand why that person died by suicide through psychological autopsy investigations to help improve community services and programs to prevent future suicides.
Launched by SpeakUp ReachOut and other partners on the Eagle County Psychological Autopsy Cohort, the research initiative is seeking families impacted by suicide within the past two years to participate.
The group includes representatives from SpeakUp ReachOut, Eagle Valley Behavioral Health, Eagle County Public Health, the Eagle Hope Center, Colorado Mountain Medical, Vail Health as well as the Avon and Vail police departments.
“The psychological autopsy is a best practice to start to identify why suicide happens in our community and what we can do about it,” said Erin Ivie, executive director of SpeakUp ReachOut, a nonprofit formed in 2009 to prevent suicide in the Eagle River Valley through training, awareness and hope.
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“This new initiative shows the investment our suicide prevention coalition, behavioral health providers, community hospital, public health and law enforcement have for preventing suicide in our community,” Ivie said.
According to the group, the psychological autopsy investigation was developed in 1968 by Dr. Edwin Shneidman, the founding president of the American Association of Suicidology. The approach has been refined over the decades since then, and has become a best-practice investigative procedure to reconstruct the events and circumstances that led to the suicide and inform future prevention efforts.
The investigations help promote understanding to the often-asked “why” question raised by survivors regarding the suicide of a loved one. But they can also be used in case-control research studies to better ascertain risk factors for suicide, and to help answer questions of causation in both individual cases of suicide and interconnections between cases, the groups said in a news release announcing the research initiative.
Twelve people died by suicide in Eagle County in 2020; 11 people in 2019.
“We have to look at what’s contributing to suicides,” Dr. Casey Wolfington, community behavioral health director at Eagle Valley Behavioral Health, said of the initiative.
“We can’t just increase access to services and assume that will be the answer,” Wolfington said. “It is so important to understand what people are going through, or what could be in place that could help ease those burdens.”
The investigative process would include structured interviews with family, friends and co-workers; reviews of police reports and autopsies; and reviews of documents such as medical and mental health records, school records, criminal records, and occupational and financial records.
“Help from loved ones that have lost someone to suicide in our community is necessary for this initiative to be successful, but we recognize that this may be very difficult for people to do,” said Dana Erpelding, operations director of Eagle Valley Behavioral Health.
Through Olivia’s Fund, the group said it is able to offer mental health and counseling support at no cost to people that agree to participate in the initiative.
The U.S. Surgeon General recently sent out a call to action for communities to implement the National Strategy for Suicide Prevention developed by the National Action Alliance, and this initiative would directly help improve the quality, timeliness and use of suicide-related data, as outlined in the national strategy, the group said.
“I can’t reiterate enough — we know this is a difficult ask,” Ivie said of the initiative. “We hope that some people will want to participate and share with us about their loved one, in the hope that we can help others.”
Families interested in participating can contact SpeakUp ReachOut by email at email@example.com.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, please call The Hope Center of the Eagle Valley at 970-306-4673 or Colorado Crisis Services at 844-493-8255.
Tom Lotshaw can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.