by Noah Whitaker
November 19 is International Survivors of Suicide Day. This is an occasion that encourages people affected by suicide loss to gather, share comfort, and create an understanding of what has happened and the journey yet to come.
Each year Tulare and Kings counties lose a combined total of fifty to sixty people to suicide. Each death leaves numerous survivors. Frequently, suicide deaths surprise the friends, family, and loved ones who were close to the decedent. The sudden loss leaves them in a daze of shock and mourning, and unprepared for the weeks following the death. Survivors of loss are not alone in our community.
Approximately four years ago, while attending a national conference on suicide, we met Dr. Frank Campbell of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Frank had developed a model that he called the Local Outreach to Suicide Survivors (LOSS) Team. This model offered immediate support to those who have lost a loved one. We know it would benefit our community. The goal of these LOSS Teams is to shorten the elapsed time between the death and survivors finding help to cope with the devastating loss.
The Tulare & Kings Counties Suicide Prevention Task Force working with local first responder agencies, evaluated the LOSS Team model and allocated resources to establish a local team. We worked closely with Dr. Frank Campbell, to ensure ongoing effective training, implementation, and functioning of our local effort. Within a year our team went from desire to reality.
LOSS Teams are like snowflakes. There are a lot of similarities between them, but each is unique. Active postvention teams work closely with first responder groups to dispatch to the scene of the suicide death. Delayed response teams will dispatch hours, days, weeks, or months after a death, when they learn of a loss, usually through word of mouth. Blended teams will respond to both active and delayed calls as the situation requires. Most teams are staffed by trained community volunteers, some are mental health professionals, a few are trained law enforcement officials, many have other structures.
The Tulare and Kings Counties LOSS Team is a volunteer team housed within Tulare County Health & Human Services Agency, with support from Kings County Behavioral Health. Team volunteers have diverse backgrounds and professions. Many have lost someone to suicide though not everyone has. We have licensed mental health professionals, retirees, folks from blue and white collar professions, students, and others. Volunteers give their time with a frequency and duration based upon their availability and desire to aid others. At times we have had fewer than five people responding to more than fifty deaths a year. Recently our team has grown to fifteen members. We hope to continue to grow.
The way our team functions is fairly simple. When a suspected suicide death occurs, the Coroner or a designated first responder will contact us. Volunteers then dispatch immediately to the incident scene to meet with those affected by the death. Responding team members speak with the newly bereaved about their loss. They discuss what to expect in the coming hours, days, weeks, and months ahead. The volunteer will provide information and linkage to our peer support groups, materials such as books on grief, and access to our grief counseling program. Volunteers follow-up with those impacted by the loss over the next year or more.
One of the major supports for our team is our Grief & Bereavement Counseling Program. We offer access to free counseling via contracts with licensed clinicians such as Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists and Licensed Clinical Social Workers. These clinicians receive additional specialty training in treating suicide related grief and trauma. There are only three requirements for participation in our program:
1) the recipient has lost someone to suicide (length of time since death doesn’t matter); 2) they either live or work in Tulare or Kings counties; 3) they want to participate in grief counseling. The program is completely funded by Proposition 63, the Mental Health Services Act. As such, there is no share of cost, co-pay, or any other fees.
Our resource library is another excellent service we provide. We purchase books and materials that we have discovered or have been recommended to us by survivors, professionals in the field, grief counselors, and similar sources. These materials are available to loss survivors at no-charge thanks to donations made to support these efforts. These resources can provide a tremendous amount of support and aid in the aftermath of loss.
An additional service we offer is two monthly peer support groups. These groups can be pivotal in the grief journey of many. Groups are comprised of people who have lost someone to suicide. The length of time since the loss can be days, months, years, or decades. Our groups do not have a strict structure, meaning there isn’t a start and stop date for group, so people attend as they need the support. Group sessions run about 90 minutes. The format is an informal round robin discussion in which attendees share about where they are currently at with their grief, what they have been struggling with, where they have found hope, the strengths they have discovered to obtain support and give hope to others. A peer group isn’t a great fit for everyone, but for many it can help them heal in ways they never thought possible.
Suicide Loss Survivors Peer Support Group
Meeting: 1st Thursday of each month
5:30 – 7 p.m.
460 Kings County Dr. Suite 101
Hanford, CA 93230
Suicide Loss Survivors Peer Support Group
Meeting: 3rd Thursday of each month
6:30 to 8 p.m.
210 W. Center Ave
Visalia, CA 93291
As International Survivors of Suicide Day approaches keep this population in mind. If you have lost someone to suicide, please consider joining one of our suicide loss survivor peer support groups. If you think you would benefit from grief counseling, contact us for a referral to one of our licensed clinicians. If you know someone who has lost a person, reach out to them and offer them encouragement. Let them know you are there for them, give them a little hope. If your heart is in it, consider joining our LOSS Team as a volunteer. Whatever you do, create a little bit of hope for someone.
If you or someone you know is at risk for suicide, please contact: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
1 (800) 273-8255.
If you would like to learn more about the Suicide Prevention Task Force (SPTF), are interested in any of the services mentioned in this article, would like to volunteer with the LOSS Team, or would like to make a supporting donation, please refer to the contact information below.
For Non-Crises Information Related to Suicide Prevention Task Force (SPTF) C/O Noah Whitaker 5957 S. Mooney Blvd. Visalia, CA 93277 (559) 624-7471 Coordinator’s Email: sptf@tularehhsa[dot]org
LOSS Team: www.sptf.org/english/index.cfm/programs/lossteam
Peer Support Groups: www.sptf.org/english/index.cfm/programs/suicide-loss-survivors-support-group
Our team’s logo is a lighthouse. Lighthouses are built on firm ground, provide a beacon to those caught in turbulent waters, and their light helps guide the disoriented to find safe harbor. This is what the members of our LOSS Team do every time they respond to a call.
Check out KRL’s Mental Health section for more mental health related articles.