In an ongoing effort to try to understand the rising suicide trends throughout our nation and county, Boone County Coroner Justin Sparks shared his thoughts on what his office is witnessing and how people and parents can get mental health assistance when their loved ones are in acute crisis.
A Harsh Reality Regarding Mental Health Care
In most cases of suicide, people know there are resources out there … they just simply are overwhelmed and don’t know where to begin asking for help.
“It is an astronomical hill to climb and difficult to navigate,” Sparks expressed. “Having good guidance is huge, and I think the easiest way to start that conversation is to talk with your primary care provider. A lot of people don’t think about going to their primary care provider, but that’s a really good start, especially when it’s not a crisis situation.”
Sparks shared that the county has several standalone therapy options and reputable mental health organizations. So, why is it the county coroner processed FOUR suicides by February 20th, 2023, which, in comparison with last year, took until June of 2022 for Sparks’ office to process the same number?
When asked if it has much to do with the fact that most mental health practices and professionals are booked solid for weeks and months due to the nationwide shortage of mental health professionals in the industry, Sparks replied, “There is a time gap between making the call and when you’re going to be able to see somebody. It’s not like going to a minute clinic in most instances where you can just walk in and start that conversation. That is a challenge for a lot of people. As a parent, all you want is to be able to take care of your kid in that moment of acute crisis. When it comes to acute mental health care, most people don’t have the answers. So, how do we get everyone informed so that they do have the answers and know what to do in those acute moments of crisis? Suicide is final. We have to be able to figure this out and how to communicate the available resources and guidance.”
Seeking Answers to Help The Suffering
Sparks participates in several mental health–related groups in Boone County so as to try to gain a better understanding of what is going on in the county and what resources are available.
“I think an underutilized or less-known resource that is very good in acute crisis is the [Ascension] St. Vincent Stress Center,” Sparks stated. “They see kids and adults, and it’s essentially like a mental health emergency room. They are really good people, and you can basically get screened immediately after walking in their door. They can admit you as an inpatient if you’re in crisis or they can set you up to receive intensive outpatient care.”
Sparks continued, “I am proud of Witham Health Services for having partnered with InWell [Integrated Wellness, LLC] and one other agency so that if somebody comes to the emergency department at Witham, they will get evaluated by a mental health provider before they leave the ER. Something else that I think the pandemic made more available is telehealth services. There are several mental health providers and apps that may offer quicker and easier access and be more comfortable for an individual.”
When asked why suicides in Boone County are trending upwards, Sparks replied, “I am working to understand why. I don’t know the answer yet, but we are working really hard at figuring it out. I’m a data person, and I’m always looking for trends. I’ve created something that’s probably unique to my office, which is a Non-natural Death Registry. I take all the deaths that we have, and I have three subcategories: Non acts of violence, Acts of Violence and Overdoses. Overdoses in Boone County are trending down, and that’s really good. We are trying to understand how people are dealing with mental health and the impact of mental health through the pandemic years. I’m working with our prosecutor’s office and am looking at datasets with regards to arrests and juvenile arrests [post-pandemic years]. None of us alive had dealt with a pandemic before [COVID-19], and everybody dealt with it the best way we knew how.”
Sparks is a member of the state’s Suicide and Overdose Fatality Review team, whose purpose is to review data, trends and root causes to make Hoosier communities stronger and healthier with regards to mental health.
“We have law enforcement, mental health providers and physicians on this team,” Sparks shared. “We try to reconstruct the lives of people who have died from suicide or overdose, and we share everything we’ve learned about these people, trying to identify the points at which things went really wrong. We are always looking for what the root causes are and at ways that we as community leaders can address the things we observe as trends. So far, we have identified some important things that I think are going to help make our communities healthier. It just takes some time for us to better understand these tragedies.”
Sadly, children at even younger ages don’t fully comprehend the concept of suicide except for the fact that it is permanent. Sparks offered some advice to parents with children who are exhibiting signs of being in acute crisis or signs of mental health issues.
“Pay attention to what’s going on in your children’s lives,” Sparks emphasized. “Be aware of social media and the things that we’re using on electronic devices. Oftentimes, kids are exposed to things in a way different manner than the current parent generation was exposed to things. When you’re a kid whose brain isn’t fully developed, you don’t understand how to process the things that you are being exposed to and these are things that we, as parents, probably don’t know about. Be mindful of those things and don’t be afraid to talk with your kids. Make sure they understand that you’re looking out for them because you love and care about them.”
For more information on mental health resources in Boone County, visit livinginboonecounty.com/mental-and-behavioral-health-resources-in-boone-county.