The change from winter to spring can be a hopeful time of year for many, with flowers blooming and more sunshine. However, this time of year is prime time for suicides and suicide threats, experts say.

“January through March is peak time for suicides and suicidal ideations,” said Regina Myers, Comprehensive Healthcare’s Waypoint director. “People get through the dark and gloomy months, and when the seasons change, it promotes energy they didn’t have.”

That energy is put into acting on people’s suicidal thoughts, she said — at least that’s what studies and data point toward. This is something Waypoint is working to curb.

Waypoint is one of Comprehensive’s inpatient facilities that opened in September in College Place, and it’s the first of its kind in the Walla Walla area, Myers said. Before, patients had to travel to Tri-Cities or Spokane for inpatient mental health treatment, she said.

People still have to go elsewhere for intensive hospital stays, as the local spot doesn’t help those needing medical aid, such as detoxing from substances. However, it helps those transitioning from hospitals and people needing some stabilization, Myers said.

Waypoint has 16 beds, with eight dedicated to transitioning and eight to stabilization. Between 12 to 13 of those beds are used at any given time, she said.

The center is needed, Myers said, because suicide is the eighth leading cause of death in the state, according to the state’s Department of Health 2016 report. And, more people died from suicide than homicide in both the state and the nation, she said.

Peggy Needham, behavior health prevention specialist at Walla Walla County Department of Community Health, also said springtime seemed to have a higher rate of suicide, but no one had identified a reason. Several theories exist, with some explained in a Psychology Today article, “April (and May, and Probably June) Is the Cruelest Month.”

Also, Myers said, rural areas have an increased risk for mental illness, but often lack the services needed to treat them.

Waypoint has designated crisis responders who go to Providence St. Mary Medical Center’s emergency room, and elsewhere, when called by staff, she said. In February, Myers said crisis responders were called 57 times to the hospital emergency room and visited 68 in January. But, she said, those numbers weren’t surprising given the changing seasons.

Walla Walla Police Department responded to about 35 suicide threat calls and seven suicide attempt calls from January to March 15, according to an analysis report. The analysis provided was inconclusive for comparing to other time frames, but pointed to a possible uptick of those calls in the year’s first months.

Myers said she didn’t know if anyone had studied whether the weather played a role in suicide risk, and more local research could be done to compare to national data.

“Most of our local energy is focused on reducing stigma and increasing protective factors that promote healing and recovery,” she said. “If we focus on the problem, we might miss the solution. We want to promote connections and hope in our community.”

Law enforcement partners

As part of that promotion, designated crisis responders ride with Walla Walla police officers once or twice a week, Myers said, to assist those who need mental health help. The partnership with the WWPD began in December, she said, after the two agencies realized that by joining forces they could better help the community. No new expenses or laws are involved, she said.

Waypoint also has provided emergency responders and Providence staff direct access to its team.

“Law enforcement has told us one of the biggest challenges for them is that they’re not trained to help someone with mental health issues,” Myers said.

A partnership with the Walla Walla Sheriff’s Department is underway, she said, and College Place Police Department may join, but they receive fewer calls and might not need the service.

At a Walla Walla County Board of Commissioners meeting in early March, police Capt. Chris Buttice said the partnership was “fantastic.”

“Prior to this, all we knew was that we would call crisis line and would get a worker to respond and didn’t have any kind of personal relationship with the responding providers,” Buttice said in a statement. “When they respond to an in-progress call and the crisis workers are with them, this truly expedites the services we can get to the people in need.”

Facility care

Besides responded with police and to the hospital, Waypoint has a plethora of other services. About 23 people work at the center, Myers said, with a minimum of two during a shift and three during the day because people needed transportation to medical appointments or elsewhere.

Workers also provide food, laundry, toiletries and clothing, and assist clients in getting to housing, legal, medical, mental treatment, and more, she said. Medications are dispensed by workers to patients, but no medical staff are employed there.

A regular schedule is provided, too, Myers said, because it’s been proven to help alleviate mental illnesses. However, everyone has his or her own treatment plan.

“One of our primary goals is to help them get well,” Myers said. “One person’s care won’t look like another person’s care.”

The building itself was construction with patient care in mind, with rounded corners on furniture, breakaway hooks, boxed-in plumbing, blinds in-between window panes, and more. People’s safety was on the forefront when plans were laid out, Myers said, because so many ways existed for self-harm.

“We really do take care of everything they need while they’re here,” she said.

A false viewpoint of the facility is that it’s a homeless shelter, Myers said, referring to opinions she’s heard from the community. The truth is that about half of the patients have a home, but need the guidance of the facility to get back on their feet.

Another mistaken belief, she said, is that people can just “snap out of” their mental illness. Because of that, people suffering from mental health issues often are ostracized.

“People are more likely to respond with support to someone with cancer,” Myers said.

To help change that, the community can start caring about people, she said.

“One of the leading sources of healing is hope,” she said of mental illness. “And having some sort of connection, whether it’s family, friends, pets. Those people are more likely to survive through suicidal thoughts.”

For more information, visit Comprehensive Healthcare at www.comphc.org.

Emily Thornton can be reached at emilythornton@wwub.com or 526-8325.

Emily Thornton can be reached at emilythornton@wwub.com or 509-526-8325.

Emily Thornton covers courts and emergency services, as well as other various stories. She has been in the newspaper industry off and on since roughly 1999 and lived primarily on the West Coast, but also Florida and Europe.

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