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Suicide Prevention Day Wish List: Public Education, Accessible Substance-Abuse Treatment

Jessica Palombo

Tuesday was annual Suicide Prevention Day at the Florida Capitol. It’s when advocates knock on legislators’ doors and talk about how they’d like laws to change to try and save lives.

For many of Florida’s suicide prevention advocates, the fight is personal. Betsy Westuba, regional director of the Suicide Prevention Coalition in the Tampa area, said, “And it’s not an easy journey, but I’m doing it because I lost my own brother and an uncle to this terrible, terrible devastation.”

For her, the eleventh annual Suicide Prevention Day at the Capitol started with a phone conversation with a mother in her region.

“This poor mother went for 13 years trying to get help,” she said.

The woman’s 29-year-old daughter, Jennifer, had substance abuse issues, but the laws allowing her mother to get her treatment varied from county to county.

“People that are abusers of substances will move around,” she said. “So this poor woman went to so many different avenues to get help and to judges, and was constantly told, ‘I’m sorry; I can’t help you.’ Consequently, her daughter eventually took her life, but for 13 years, she suffered.”

A bill called The Jennifer Act is aimed at making substance abuse treatment more readily available. It’s being sponsored in the House by Democrat Carl Zimmerman and in the Senate by Republican Jack Latvala, both from Pinellas County. But while the bill was assigned to several committees in both houses, it has never had a first hearing.

On Tuesday, advocates said, they’re not giving up the fight, because of the victims. Former Suicide Prevention Coalition Chair Judy Broward read a list of names of Floridians who chose to take their own lives. Current chair Marilyn Jehs said, family members submitted the names to help raise awareness of what she calls a major public health problem.

“In all the events that we go to, we let them see that suicide is real. The faces are real. They come from all walks of life. Those names came from all over Florida. We put it out that we were going to be here, and they came in day after day, asking to be read on the steps of the Capitol,” she said.

Jehs said, one of the group’s priorities this session is for the legislature to establish what it calls the Mental Health First Aid Program. The Department of Children and Families would train the public to see the signs of depression and substance abuse and help people get treatment. That program appears in jeopardy, though, as it’s scheduled for a second reading in the House with no Senate companion.

Still, the Department of Children and Families Director of Substance Abuse and Mental Health, Hayden Mathieson, said, the state is committed to identifying young people who need help, especially as they come into the child welfare system.

“A great many suicides are preventable, and a comprehensive, synergistic approach emphasizing wellness, collaboration and effective policy is shown to save lives,” he said, reading from a proclamation from Gov. Rick Scott in recognition of Suicide Prevention Day. He said, every day in 2011, more than 7 people took their own lives in Florida. And the state is committed to lowering that number.