2017-07-30 / Insight

‘We have to ask the questions’

Professionals in place to help suicidal people
BY PHIL FOLEY
810-452-2616 • pfoley@mihomepaper.com


Jeff Stokowski, Systems Administrator at Lapeer County Central Dispatch, holds up one of the emergency medical protocol folders that are at every station in Central Dispatch. Dispatchers and other emergency services personnel have noticed a recent spike in suicidal person calls. 
Photo by Phil Foley Jeff Stokowski, Systems Administrator at Lapeer County Central Dispatch, holds up one of the emergency medical protocol folders that are at every station in Central Dispatch. Dispatchers and other emergency services personnel have noticed a recent spike in suicidal person calls. Photo by Phil Foley LAPEER — In the first six months of this year 347 people called Lapeer County Central Dispatch either threatening suicide, reporting someone who was or to report someone who had committed suicide.

As of Tuesday, another 50 people had made the call and so far, nine people have died in Lapeer County at their own hand.

“I don’t know if there’s a reason or if it’s just coincidence, but it’s been crappy lately,” said Matt Bennett, a Lapeer County Dispatcher.

In a suicidal situation, dispatchers are generally the first person someone speaks to. Jeff Stokowski, Systems Administrator at Lapeer County Central Dispatch, said it’s typically some- one other than the suicidal person, who makes the call to 9-1-1.


Betsy Felton, director of emergency services, women’s services and orthopedics at McLaren Lapeer Region, and Beth Boyd, the law enforcement liaison at Community Mental Health (CMH) and the chairperson of the Lapeer County Suicide Prevention Network, are part of a countywide team working hard to keep Lapeer County residents alive. 
Photos by Phil Foley Betsy Felton, director of emergency services, women’s services and orthopedics at McLaren Lapeer Region, and Beth Boyd, the law enforcement liaison at Community Mental Health (CMH) and the chairperson of the Lapeer County Suicide Prevention Network, are part of a countywide team working hard to keep Lapeer County residents alive. Photos by Phil Foley Dispatchers have an emergency medical protocol that they are trained and certified on before they ever sit in front of a microphone.

Satkowski said dispatchers ask a series of standard questions that are “more medically oriented.” He said dispatchers ask if the person has taken pills or other drugs; are they threatening or have they done something like hanged or shot themselves.


Dr. Brad Blaker makes a note at the emergency room at McLaren Lapeer Region. His first task when a suicidal person comes into the ER is to determine their medical state, then decide what the appropriate care is for them. Dr. Brad Blaker makes a note at the emergency room at McLaren Lapeer Region. His first task when a suicidal person comes into the ER is to determine their medical state, then decide what the appropriate care is for them. However, he added, they also ask if the person is violent or armed and if armed, what type of weapon they have.

While it’s important to get medical attention to the suicidal person, Satkowski said, it’s also important to make sure emergency services workers are safe as well.

Typically, an EMS crew stage a short distance away from where the suicidal person is until police have gone in and made sure the location is safe.

He said where a person is determines how long it will take for help to arrive. “If you’re in the city, we’ll probably be there in minutes, but if you’re in Burnside, it may be awhile,” he said.

Regardless, Satkowski said, dispatchers stay on the phone with the call until first responders arrive.

He said it’s not often that dispatchers find themselves trying to talk a suicidal person back from the edge, but it happens and it doesn’t always work out.

Satkowski recalled a dispatcher who retired a few years ago who took a call from a suicidal man in Metamora who eventually pulled into a church parking lot and shot himself.

Satkowski said that while the county offers counseling after all traumatic incidents, during his 15 years at Central Dispatch he can’t recall anyone ever asking for it.

At the scene, a police officer, EMS worker or even a family member can ask for a “petition,” which is the first step in getting a suicidal person mental help and allows the authorities to hold them up to 72 hours for a medical assessment.

“The only thing predictable about suicide is it’s unpredictable,” said Betsy Felton, director of emergency services, women’s services and orthopedics at McLaren Lapeer Region.

“We have to think of it as a thought disease, not an action disease,” said Beth Boyd, the law enforcement liaison at Community Mental Health (CMH) and the chairperson of the Lapeer County Suicide Prevention Network.

“People in a bad spot don’t make good decisions,” Felton said. She said the first priority of everyone involved is keeping the suicidal person safe.

Dr. Brad Blaker, DO, medical director of McLaren Lapeer Region’s emergency services, said the first thing they do when someone comes through the emergency room doors is a medical assessment to make sure there’s not some underlying medical issue causing the behavior.

But, he noted less than 20 percent of the suicidal patients he sees have a medical problem. While a patient’s physical health is being examined Blaker said the nursing staff askes a series of ever more pointed questions aimed at determining their mental state.

Surprisingly, said Felton, people in distress really want to be asked the question.

While police reports often say people are brought in for observation, Blaker said that’s something of a misnomer. “They’re really brought here for evaluation,” he said. “We’re looking for what’s best for the patient.”

If the patient is on Medicaid or has no insurance at all, that evaluation is done by a CMH staffer and if they have insurance it’s done by McLaren staff. In any case, no one is ever turned away from the emergency room.

Depending on the results of the evaluation, a patient can be sent home with family members or held in the hospital’s 15-beed Behavioral Health Unit.

Sometimes, resources become a problem. Blaker said McLaren is not set up to handle pediatric mental patients and while it’s a class of patients that’s growing statewide, pediatric mental health beds are the hardest to find because they’re in critical short supply.

Still, said Blaker, no one leaves McLaren until they can find a place where the patient can be safe and receive the help they need.

“Statewide there are not enough beds,” Blaker said, adding when McLaren’s 15 beds are full placing patients elsewhere “can be a very big problem.” He noted “I’ve heard every excuse known to man.”

Blaker said patients who are kept at McLaren or transferred elsewhere typically are held five to six days and during that time a follow-up plan is developed.

However, he said, for a variety of reasons, about 60 percent of patients never come in for follow-up.

Roy Ramirez, director of clinical services at CMH, said his agency has walk-in services available at its main location at 1570 Suncrest Dr. in Mayfield Township, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays. He added people can call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-442-4673 or text CONNECT to 741741 to get a live person to communicate with.

For people who are on Medicaid or have no insurance, Ramirez said he has five people available during the day and one on call at night to deal with suicide issues.

Although there’s been a recent spike in suicide attempts, Felton said calls are actually down from a peak in 2009-10. She said men between the ages of 35 and 65 are the most likely to commit suicide, although women are most likely to be successful on the first attempt.

She noted that of the nine people who’ve killed themselves in Lapeer County so far this year all but two were men. She added, men also tend to be more dramatic, with shooting and hanging the most common method.

Boyd noted that while the economy has been improving, “there are still people struggling.” She added not all those struggles are financial. There are people facing divorce, alcohol and drug issues.

Boyd, Felton and Ramirez agreed there is still a certain stigma around mental health issues. “Men just don’t seek mental health services,” Boyd said.

Ramirez said CMH offers a mental health first-aid course the third Tuesday of every month. There’s a suicide survivors support group that meets at 6 p.m. the first and third Thursday of the month at St. Matthew’s Anglican Church in downtown Lapeer.

“We need to start a dialog,” Felton said. “We need to ask the questions.”

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