A tragedy in our city

On December 19, our city council passed its annual Human Services Subsidy Fund Allocations. There was debate on the floor of the City Council about only one of the items in the allocations - the fact that the Front Porch Coalition, which had received allocations in previous years was not on the list of agencies to receive funding in 2017.

Our City Council Meetings are recorded and available for the public to watch. I watched the debate after the meeting and tried to listen carefully to the positions of various council members.

The discussion of the item reflected a basic reality: The city has limited funds and there are always requests for more funding than the amount of funds available. Decisions need to be made every year about whether or not and how much to fund the agencies that apply. On the other hand the subsidy for the 211 help line was doubled in the bill that passed. Other agencies were completely left out of the funding list. The Council clearly decided to change its priorities for funding. Unfortunately, however, the bill and debate also reflected some misunderstandings on the part of city council members. The proposal was brought to the Council without recommendation.

I know that there is little to no chance of changing the thinking of the members of the Council, but I am concerned about some of the mistaken assumptions behind the change.

For example, it was noted that the number of people affected by suicide in our community is lower than other issues confronting our community. The error with that thinking is that it is based in the practice of counting bodies. If you only count the number of people who die, you simply fail to count the number of people who are affected. Every suicide affects dozes of people. Furthermore other issues such as homelessness, chronic mental illness and addiction are directly related to suicide - you cannot separate them into different categories.

Councilman Richie Nordstrom noted that he had visited with the Front Porch Coalition and that the Coalition had not taken his advice. I wish he could see his paternalism. His attitude that he wants to fund only agencies that he can control defies the way cities operate. The Front Porch Coalition is an independent non-profit agency that operates in our community precisely because the city’s official government has no services for those who have experienced suicide in their families. The City Council is not involved in suicide prevention in any way. The Coalition is a way for the city to partner with others in our community, not a way for the city to direct the efforts of its citizens.

It was also noted that some of the volunteers who serve on the LOSS (Local Outreach to Survivors of Suicide) Team are tired. This may be true, but I seems hard to argue that a team of nine persons with seven in training, for a total of 16 people who maintain the ability to dispatch a team of two or more people 24 hours a day, seven days a week are tired. There is a lot of energy involved in the process of maintaining the LOSS team that has been named by national leaders as “the nations’s most fully integrated with law enforcement team.” Tired, however isn’t the reason I cringe when I receive a call in the middle of the night. It is the knowledge that some family has been struck by a tragedy.

Another huge misunderstanding that was perpetrated by the Council debate was the statement that response after a suicide is not prevention. Statistics show that a survivor (one who has lost a loved one to suicide) is at more than double the risk of dying by suicide if they do not receive proper support. When a quick response is made following a suicide, those rates can be significantly lower. In Suicide Prevention, the phrase is “postvention is prevention.” What we do after a suicide has a direct impact on the number of people. Furthermore, the Front Porch Coalition is the community’s primary source of prevention education, offering ASIST training, Safe Talk training, hosting workshops as a part of Freshman Impact, and providing speakers for groups across the city. There is absolutely no agency in our community that even comes close to the work that the Front Porch Coalition does.

As has been true in other debates, there are members of the City Council who fail to distinguish between investment and expense. There is absolutely no question that the LOSS team saves the city tens of thousands of dollars each year in decreased law enforcement costs. Preventing one suicide saves the city more than the $3,000 the city invested in the Coalition in 2016. Having a team respond to a suicide saves time for city police and allows them to focus on their other responsibilities. Saying the City can’t afford to participate is the failure to see how much more it costs for the city not to participate.

One council member seemed to think that churches are already providing adequate suicide prevention services to the community. That member seems to forget that it was churches who were primary partners in forming the Front Porch Coalition.

I could argue for hours about what I see to be a major error in judgment on the part of the Council, but there is another point that seems to me to be more important.

The Front Porch Coalition is a group of agencies and individuals in our community who have decided to bring the discussion of mental illness and suicide out into the public. We are aware of the stigma attached to the discussion of suicide, but we know that open discussion and coordinated action can make a difference. We have decided to band together - to form a coalition to work together for suicide prevention. By working together we have formed one of the nation’s most effective LOSS teams. We are providing suicide awareness and prevention education of the highest quality in our city.

We won’t cease our work because of the loss of city funding. We’ll make up that loss through more fund-raising events.

It is a tragedy that the city has chosen to say that it doesn’t want to belong to the coalition.

Copyright (c) 2016 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!