The University of Rhode Island Health Services and South County were awarded $2 million to transform the local health care delivery system and combat suicide in Washington County, which has the highest suicide rate in the state.

Washington County, the home of URI and other towns in southern Rhode Island has a suicide rate of 10.1 out of 100,000. This year, South County Healthy Bodies, Healthy Minds is implementing a grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to achieve zero suicides in the area.  

The process will occur over the next five years, with URI Health Services role beginning in year four. However, Director of Health Services, Ellen Reynolds, said that the health center is already starting on the goal.

“We’ve already started the main part of this plan which is identification and screening,” said Reynolds. “Essentially what happens is someone comes into the health center and they answer a couple of questions electronically about their mental health. If they answer positive then they answer more questions and their responses go into the database.”

Although Washington County has the highest suicide rate in Rhode Island, the number is out of 100,000 and still lower than the national average. However, Reynolds and South County believe that one suicide is too many.

“We’re doing this so those people who have feelings like that have the ability to be identified, screened, referred and treated,” Reynolds said. “Our goal is to have no one feel the need to take their own life.”

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, there are approximately 123 suicides a day around the country. The Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH) reports that adults between the ages of 44 and 54 have the highest rate of suicide in the state and in the country.

However, there seems to be a rising number of suicides among youth. In 2017, 15.9 percent of surveyed Rhode Island high school students said they had considered suicide and 10.5 percent said they had attempted suicide.

“We need to continue to destigmatize mental health and treat it like regular health. It is a big part of the body that needs to be attended to,” said Reynolds. “Mental health continues to be stigmatized into something that you don’t want to acknowledge that you have.”

Reynolds said she does not have a concrete explanation as for why Washington County has the highest suicide rate in Rhode Island. However, she believes it is due to lack of mental health care or practitioners.

“I really do think that we are in a mental health desert,” Reynolds said. “Providence is where most of the mental health resources are and it is hard for people to want to drive there or even have access in general to get there. The hope is, with the grant, we’ll make more of an impact.”

Reynolds hopes that the generation of students at URI eradicates the stigma of mental health and says that there are many ways for students to help out their friends or people they know. One program URI offers is Mental Health First Aid Training. Mental Health First Aid teaches people how to identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illness and substance use disorders.

The training lasts eight hours and it provides individuals with skills needed to reach out and provide initial support to someone who may be developing a mental health or substance use problem and help connect them to the appropriate care.

“If you notice some changes in a friend, I encourage you to talk to them,” said Reynolds. “It has been proven that if you’re willing to talk to someone like that, you can help them or even save their life.”

Reynolds pointed out that the changes do not have to be drastic.

“Even if the change is something as small as a friend who always gets their hair done stops,” Reynolds said. “That is worth talking about.”

For students who feel as though they are not the right person to know what to do, it is recommended they talk to a faculty member, the Dean’s office, RA’s or other staff members. Students can even simply put their arm around the person and say, “lets go talk to a counselor.”

URI offers an array of mental health care services such as the Counseling Center in Roosevelt, the Health Center, and the Psychological Consultation Center in Chafee.

“I feel like suicide is kind of a taboo topic and we definitely need to talk about it more,” junior Haley Weinstein said. “I think if we provide more spaces where it’s safe to talk about suicide that would be helpful.”