“But,” Norraine Buttar, Chief of Youth Development for the Department of Community and Health Services (DCHS) for the City of Alexandria says, “it’s fine to emphasize suicide prevention for one month but we need to do more year round.”
Buttar says the city’s 2019 community health assessment (CHA) indicates from self-reported suicide data that female high school students seriously consider suicide at twice the rate of male students and 11 percent report needing treatment for injuries. In addition, more than half of high school students who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual report feeling sad or hopeless for more than two weeks. A higher proportion of LGBTQ high school (16%) and middle school (28%) students report attempting suicide compared to their heterosexual peers (3% and 4% respectively).
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide is the twelfth leading cause of death in the U.S. with 1.2 million suicide attempts and 45,979 Americans who died by suicide in 2020, averaging 130 suicides a day.
The most recent data on suicide rates in Alexandria is found in the 2020 Annual Report. It reports 14 suicide deaths in Alexandria in 2020 with the average 8.8 deaths per 100,000 persons.
DCHS provides a number of online resources on how to recognize signs of a potential suicide victim and what to do to help. In addition, Buttar says some city employees such as psychologists and social workers are placed in schools as mental health support teams, and the City sponsors a number of training classes open to the community. They offer mental health first aid for the layperson to help them recognize the symptoms and offer support and connect people to the help they need.
She adds that DCHS offers classes in the shelters, nonprofits and “We have a trainer who works for the police department offering inside training.”
Buttar says the ACORP Program in which a trained mental health professional rides along on behavioral health police calls has been deemed a success, and Council approved two more ACORP teams in the FY2023 budget. In 14 incidents where arrests could have been made, the team diverted 71 percent from arrests.
The City also participates in the Virginia-wide state Lock and Talk campaign. The lock part of the campaign provides free firearm locks and medicine lock boxes that are available at the Alexandria Sheriff’s Office, Clerk of the Circuit Court’s Office, Alexandria Health Department and DCHS on Mount Vernon Avenue. According to AFSP 53 percent of suicide deaths were the result of firearms, and 19 percent who die by suicide use poison or medications.
The talk part of the campaign encourages sharing resources posted on DCHS Twitter and Facebook, attending a community seminar, getting trained in recognizing the signs of mental distress and talking about the issue with persons who may be showing signs of mental stress.
Buttar says that the City’s recently released Children and Youth Master Plan 2025 plan emphasizes increased access to mental health. “We know that the more adverse child experiences you have the more likely a child is to have negative outcomes. So it’s important to support children early.” CHA survey respondents listed mental health as the number one health issue in Alexandria.
Suicide research shows that suicide can be prevented. Contact the new National Suicide Prevention Hotline 988 or for local assistance through Crisis Link Text “CONNECT” to 85511 or call 703-527-4077.