Ashe County tops all other North Carolina counties in suicides per capita, and yet, Ashe County residents fighting depression and suicidal thoughts can often find it difficult reaching out for help.
“One thing we would like to work on this year is revamping mental health services in the county so that it works – so no one falls through the cracks,” said Sherry Goodman, a board member with Ashe Suicide/Depression Awareness Prevention task force (ASAP).
ASAP’s members include mental health professionals, people who have experience with suicide and depression, and concerned citizens. They are united by their common goal to decrease the suicide rate in the county.
According to Goodman, Ashe County is one of the only counties in North Carolina that doesn’t have the 211 service. 211 operates like 911, but instead of directing a caller to emergency services, it connects callers to social services, including mental health professionals.
Linda McDaniel, a member of ASAP, has been trying to establish a 211 service in Ashe County for several years now. McDaniel believes Ashe County is close to gaining the 211 service, but it isn’t certain yet.
Pastor Michael Lea of the West Jefferson First Baptist Church is also a member of ASAP who feels suicide and depression are root causes of several other problems in the county.
“I feel like it’s one of the major issues that affects Ashe County, and it intersects with several other issues our county has been facing,” said Lea.
Lea is the president of the Ashe Ministerial Association, and while he does represent the faith community during ASAP meetings, he also attends as a concerned member of the community.
Lea has personal ties to suicide and depression. A member of Lea’s congregation committed suicide, and Lea said many of the people he councils struggle with depression.
“It effects everything, the economy, parenting, involuntary commitments, everything,” said Lea.
According to ASAP , Ashe County had the highest suicide rate in North Carolina in 2010; over 90 percent of those suicide deaths were due to clinical depression.
From 2004-2008, Ashe County’s suicide rate was 28.3 deaths per 100,000, more than twice the North Carolina state average of 11.9, according to the State Center for Health Statistics.
“Well, our rate is way higher than everyone else’s, and has been for a long time,” said Goodman.
Goodman also said the actual number of suicides are higher than the reported rate. Some overdoses, for example, could have been suicides that were not classified as such.
According to Goodman, ASAP has been busy spreading the message that it’s okay to ask for help. For the past several years, ASAP has organized several suicide vigils to raise awareness for the problem.
The second stage of the group’s agenda, according to Goodman, is to provide resources for people who need help.
Thanks in part to ASAP, the suicide hotline at 246-HEAL will now patch callers through to mental health professionals at Daymark or Smokey Mountain Center 24 hours seven days a week.
The old suicide prevention number only patched callers through to health professionals from 9-5 on Monday through Friday. Otherwise, the call went to Ashe County Sheriff’s Office dispatch.
Goodman said she feared many people could be intimidated by talking to dispatch instead of a mental health professional, and believes adding a 24 hour hotline was a big victory for local suicide prevention.
ASAP has also made an effort to to add the suicide prevention number in Ashe County’s phone books so that it’s easier for readers to locate.
During an ASAP meeting on Dec. 18, a concerned parent advised putting up a billboard with a suicide prevention number on it.
During the same meeting, another ASAP member named James Lawson said ASAP should create small groups where those who are suffering from depression can meet and talk about their problems.
Whatever plans ASAP tries to accomplish, the group wants to work with local mental health services as much as possible.
“We don’t want to alienate ourselves from Smoky Mountain or Daymark, we need to work with them,” said Phil Cole, an ASAP board member.
During the next ASAP meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 8, a group from Appalachian State University will present their findings about the impact “mountain culture” has on suicide and depression.
Goodman said she is interested in hearing the result from the study.