Fight against suicide
School and town officials join forces to improve mental health services
Lexington Minuteman - 7/5/2018
The suicides of two Lexington High School students in 2017 prompted a Lexington School Committee member to ask: Could municipal and school staff collaborate to improve the town's mental health services?
Since September, the two branches of town government have worked together to explore this question, resulting in a multi-year strategy to enhance Lexington's mental health services.
But the multi-year approach might leave Lexingtonians who need help now unaware of local resources or unwilling to reach out. For some elected officials and residents, including the mother of one of the students who died, an extended process could put residents at risk.
The plan also calls for the town to join forces with community organizations to improve resources and outreach while reducing the stigma associated with mental health problems.
"What we hope fervently is that change is coming," said Jamie Katz, a member of the Lexington Youth and Family Services' board of directors. "Anything we can do with the town will be a big step forward."
Talking about suicide
In the year since Lexington began its conversation, mental health has received increased attention nationwide. The recent suicides of designer Kate Spade and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain led to extensive media coverage. Also in June, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report showing increased suicide rates in the United States between 1999 and 2016. The Massachusetts rate increased by 35.3 percent.
While the deaths of two young people prompted Lexington's initiative, the town recognized the need to address mental health issues for all ages. Charlotte Rodgers, the town's director of human services, told the Minuteman that the type of person most likely to die by suicide is a man between the ages of 50 and 70.
A key step for preventing suicide is getting people with issues to talk. The town's Human Services Department provides residents with resources and referrals for mental health services, and the school system offers services as well.
But school is not always in session, and adults might not want to turn to town government for help. Community organizations have an important role in filling these voids. One of these organizations is the Lexington Youth and Family Services, an all-volunteer nonprofit offering a safe environment for young people to talk about their issues.
Town faces challenges
Katz said in an interview that media attention on suicides often prompts more conversation. But it also brings a risk - that people seeing the extensive coverage might not talk about it.
"(Suicide) still can be viewed by some as a solution to a problem," Katz said.
Challenges confronting Lexington's initiative include whether people know about the resources offered in the community and how to reduce the stigma associated with mental health, which might prevent people from seeking help.
"When we start talking about mental health, that's how we get rid of the stigma," Alessandro Alessandrini said at a June 18 meeting between the School Committee and the Board of Selectmen. "Not just the town and the school, but the boards start talking about mental health as something important - that's how you get rid of that stigma."
Alessandrini is the School Committee member who first asked about improving mental health services. His question led to a collaborative effort by the Board of Selectmen, the School Committee, municipal and school staff and the public to develop a mental health strategy.
In the last of six joint meetings that began in September, a team of municipal and school employees presented three recommendations to town leaders:
- Create a task force with municipal and school staff, along with community members, that focuses on mental health services and programs. The task force leaders would report directly to the town manager and the school superintendent.
- Ensure that mental health services are accessible to residents of all ages.
- Reduce the stigma associated with mental health through education and training.
Rodgers, who is part of the collaboration, said the initiative gave the Board of Selectmen and the School Committee an opportunity to become more aware of mental health.
"One of the best things about this work is that it brought staff together to look at things in a more holistic way," Rodgers said.
Valerie Overton, a member the Lexington Pride Coalition and several other town organizations, said not all communities, including Lexington in the past, would collaborate on an initiative like this.
"I'm appreciative of all the work they have done to understand each other, get on the same page and develop the task force," Overton said in an interview.
Part of the work has been funded by a grant through the Community Health Network Area 15, a collaboration of state, local and healthcare entities. The first grant supported a planning year to develop a strategy. Rodgers said Lexington could then apply for three more yearly grants to help implement the plan.
'Years too long'
After Town Manager Carl Valente said during the May 23 meeting that the plan could take up to three years to implement, the mother of one of the high school students who died by suicide, Helene Mayer, sent an email to the selectmen. Mayer wrote that this time frame was too long.
"An implementation plan which takes four years (one year has already passed) is years too long," Mayer wrote. "In the meantime, something needs to be in place which consolidates all of the services in town. That will cost money. Spend it."
Mayer, who has a background in crisis management and therapy, said in a message to the Minuteman that she was recently called on to help with a crisis intervention for a young suicidal person. She said the town should implement a coordinated system with its current resources now and transition later as services develop through the initiative.
"We should not be the town which allows people with serious mental health issues to fall through the cracks when they need us the most," Mayer wrote to the selectmen. "Students, older individuals, families all need to know where to go for mental health services and they need to be able to access them quickly and efficiently."
During their final joint meeting, several selectmen and School Committee members said that they wanted the town to implement a program right away. In a previous meeting, the boards had discussed the William James INTERFACE Referral Service, a system that would give residents a telephone number to call for help between 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, as well as a website with resources.
Rodgers told the Minuteman that the task force is looking at several online tools, including INTERFACE, and expects to share more information in the fall.
Collaborating with the community
Collaborating with community organizations will be an important part of the initiative, Rodgers said. Representatives from local groups said they are looking forward to working with the town.
Overton, with the Lexington Pride Coalition, is also a member of the town's Diversity Advisory Task Force. She wants to help the task force understand the importance of acknowledging diverse identities, including cultural, ethnic and LGBTQ. Understanding and respecting identities should play an important role in treating mental health issues, she said.
Another local organization, the Lexington Community Coalition, offers mental health resources and programs while exploring how wellness initiatives can contribute to improved mental health.
Lana Bastianutti, co-chair of the group's mental health sub-committee, sees the town's initiative as complementing the coalition's mission.
"The biggest strength of a coalition - community, town and school - is that we are stronger together," Bastianutti said.
Katz sees the initiative as a way for the Lexington Youth and Family Services to extend its reach and make more residents aware of the resources.
"This is an opportunity for the town to forge a true partnership that will greatly enhance the safety net of resources to all of our citizens, whether old or young," Katz said.