The Faces Behind Suicide Prevention

Suicide is the second leading cause of death for 10- to 24-year-olds in Oregon. Ranked 11th in 2018, suicide rates were significantly higher than the national average for over 10 years, according to Oregon Suicide Prevention. In 2021, 95 teens in Deschutes County lost their lives to suicide, as stated by KTVZ.

Although the 2018 rates are high, the 2021 statistics show  a 26% decrease, dropping Oregon’s ranking to 22nd nationally — an improvement largely attributed to new resources and procedures provided for teens throughout Deschutes County. 

Many students know about First Step, an app pre-installed on every Bend-La Pine School District iPad filled with helplines for struggling teens. YouthLine, a similar app,  provides support through volunteer students who want to help their peers with texts or phone calls. Despite these resources, many teens are unaware of who makes these tools available or what others are out there. 

Paul Kansky, the deputy police chief of Bend, is a board member of the Central Oregon Suicide Prevention Alliance, also known as COSPA, an organization created to combat suicide across all age groups. COSPA’s methods are to implement and develop effective methods and programs that are customized to Deschutes County’s residents. 

“We get a lot of information from cases, and we can contribute that to help further prevention: Gun safety, the communication around suicide, locking guns and relinquishing firearms to police,” Kansky said. 

“We’ve experienced this issue throughout our careers,” he said. Law enforcement takes a huge role in COSPA in order to develop safe and effective protocols in the field. 

“Most people are in a dark place in those moments – the choice they make is so final, but individuals make it in seconds or minutes. They can be interviewed, spoken to and listened to by the community and officers.” 

Jim Boen, a former Bend-La Pine school administrator for 14 years, now works for the High Desert Education Service District, an organization that funnels government funding into school districts throughout Oregon. The High Desert Education Service District gives some of its funding toward a program called the Forward Project, to combat suicide.

“In essence, the Forward Project is about activities and initiatives at schools to either start or enhance the community in hopes less students harm themselves, end up in the emergency room, and ultimately don’t commit suicide — that’s the goal around it,” said Boen. 

Funds are allocated based on school district population – so Bend-La Pine got the most money, whereas Sisters received the least.

“This project started last year and was given over $1 million by the Central Oregon Health Council,” said Boen. “Some districts are putting a lot of funding toward after school programs like clubs. Data shows that kids that are connected to something or someone are less likely to harm themselves. Their belief is that if these kids are connected to something outside of school, whether it’s sports or music or drama, that’s fantastic. Most districts are buying new curriculum and paying for training to update their materials.” 

COSPA also has created a Hope, Health and Heal event for the Central Oregon community, a virtual information session with the goal of teaching students and parents more about youth mental health and suicide prevention, hopefully leading to supportive conversations. 

One of the faces behind the project is Bethany Kuschel, the suicide prevention project coordinator for Deschutes County Health Services. 

“I became involved in suicide prevention because of both my personal and educational background. I have experienced the impact that suicide can have on individuals, families and communities and am honored to be able to work in the first state that has legislation around suicide prevention,” said Kuchel.

This legislation, known as Adi’s Act or Senate Bill 52, mandates all Oregon public school districts and universities to have a comprehensive suicide prevention, intervention and postvention plans — such as identifying trainings for staff, suicide prevention and mental health promotion curriculum for students, and responding to a suicide death while promoting healing. Part of COSPA’s job, and Kuschel’s, is to make sure Deschutes County follows regulations.

Another contributor to the Hope, Health and Heal event is Caroline Suiter, mental health promotion strategist for Deschutes County Health Services. 

“I used to work with youth who were on probation or parole and their families. I also have years of coordinating, developing, implementing and managing programs from a population health perspective as well as on an individual level,” said Suiter. “Suicide was an issue all throughout this work, and it resulted in my interest to work more upstream before issues really present themselves in people and systems.” 

Although it isn’t seen by the eye, many resources surrounding suicide prevention are available to students throughout Central Oregon. Even when it isn’t a Zoom meeting or an app to find links, community members and state government workers are creating and implementing procedures dedicated to helping teens everyday, and will continue to do so.