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Washington County embarks on suicide and overdose study

During the pandemic, there is an increased awareness of the important role mental health plays in the overall wellness of individuals and our community.

Unfortunately, COVID-19 has also brought about an increase in the risk of overdose and suicide. According to a recent Washington Post article, suspected overdoses nationally jumped 18% in March, 29% in April and 42% in May.

These statistics are alarming, and certainly underscore the need to have behavioral health services available and accessible.

In terms of suicides, even before the pandemic, the National Center for Health Statistics reported that the suicide rate across the U.S. increased 35% between 1999 and 2018.

Even though the pandemic is exacerbating the upward trend in suicide deaths, there is hope that COVID-19 might eventually lead to an improved medical and public health infrastructure.

In addition, stigma around suicides and substance use disorder still exists, but it is possible that the pandemic has re-focused our attention to the importance of HEALTH — physical and mental. Some people have called COVID-19 the equalizer, in that NO ONE is immune. Perhaps this will also spur a paradigm shift in our community and an acknowledgement that ANYONE can be affected by behavioral health issues. Without a magnifying glass we cannot see the COVID-19 virus, and similarly many people in our community our “carrying” the burden of a silent disease of the mind.

Yes, substance use disorder is a disease, and many suicide deaths are the result of people who have behavioral health diseases.

The Washington County Behavioral Health Board (WCBHB) has many initiatives to address behavioral health challenges. For this article, we are going to focus on a project to provide our region with important information and lessons regarding overdoses and suicides.

In the State of Ohio, Child Fatality Review Boards are required to convene and share information.

Currently there is NO mandate about setting up review boards to study overdoses and suicides.

The goal of the Fatality Review Board is to have partners at the table that may have some insight to “what happened.”

Representatives from the health care system, the coroner’s office, public health departments, behavioral health agencies, law enforcement departments, the suicide awareness alliance organization, and the behavioral health board can meet to share information pertaining to the individuals who have passed due to suicide or accidental/drug related overdose.

These discussions could lead our community to a better understanding of the gaps and barriers to guide in future service delivery and funding initiatives.

To establish the Fatality Review Board, the Washington County Behavioral Health Board began collecting and analyzing data from the coroner’s office over a year ago in order to establish baselines and trends for Washington County.

The report included an analysis of toxicology screenings, demographic data, and manner of death for all deaths occurring with positive toxicology screenings (including accidental) or documented as suicide or overdose at the discretion for the coroner for the years 2013-2019 in Washington County.

State data was also collected from the Ohio Department of Health’s Violence Injury Prevention and Public Health Data Warehouse.

Washington County followed the same trend line pattern for non-fatal and fatal overdoses as the State of Ohio. Some Washington County findings of the study included an increasing trend in overdose and suicide deaths for males, females aged 26-54, and males aged over 65.

We have also found in recent years that toxicology screenings have had more complex combinations of substances.

Representatives of the Fatality Review Board will review this data with a multi-disciplinary lens, develop a strategic plan and connect with regional, state, and national partners to design and implement prevention and intervention programs around identified needs and high-risk populations.

For more information and resources concerning Substance Use Disorder and Suicide Awareness, please visit our website, wcbhb.org and check out the Recovery is Beautiful Facebook page.

Shaeleigh Sprigg and Hilles Hughes are members of the Washington County Behavioral Health Board.

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