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Lobby Day brings suicide prevention message to Olympia

Forefront team members gather at the Senate office building. Clockwise from left top: Stephen Paul Miller, Katie Simmons, Lynn Kessler, Tessa Small, Delaney Ruston, Jennifer Stuber.      — Photo by Zoe Litaker

More than 40 people dedicated to the cause of suicide prevention converged in Olympia for Forefront’s first Lobby Day on Feb. 25, 2014. Each had been affected by suicide. Some had attempted to take their own lives. Others had lost family or friends. All came to speak to their legislators about the importance of training and funding for suicide prevention. Their stories made a difference. The Senate unanimously passed ESHB 2315, a Forefront-backed bill making vital improvements to suicide prevention in Washington State, the following week.

Lobby Day came at a critical time, according to Rep. Tina Orwall (D-33rd District), chief sponsor and tactician for the bill. It had passed the house with 94-3 bi-partisan approval, but still faced crucial committee votes and organized opposition in the Senate. A slightly amended version of the bill cleared the Senate Health Care committee two days later, and passed the Senate one week later on March 6.

The new law has three parts. It 1) requires primary care professionals, like doctors and nurses, to receive training in suicide prevention; 2) sets up a pilot consultation line for front-line providers treating suicidal patients, and 3) creates a statewide suicide prevention plan. It goes into effect in early June.

The effort and the courage of the advocates who made the journey (many of them two days in a row) and told their personal stories, made a real difference, says Forefront co-director Jennifer Stuber. “For the bill to stay alive and pass unanimously in this short session is nothing short of a miracle.”

Co-sponsored by the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI)’s Washington Chapter, the Youth Suicide Prevention Program (YSPP), and with representatives from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), Lobby Day began with networking and briefings at the Sen. Adam Kline (right) hears from his constituents,— Photo by Zoe LitakerUnited Church of Christ, just steps from the Capitol campus. Forefront and YSPP had prepared packets of information including maps, and expert speakers to talk with the advocates. Washington loses 1000 residents to death by suicide each year, 15% above the national average. Washington also has a high rate of returning military personnel, who are at an increased risk of dying by suicide.

Rep. Orwall recapped recent accomplishments — the Matt Adler Act of 2012, requiring prevention training for mental health professionals, followed by last year’s legislation regarding suicide prevention in secondary schools — and said, “the bill today is the most important of all. Primary care is the front door for people experiencing depression, and this bill gives them the tools,” she said. 

Speakers also mobilized support for SB 6431, which provides assistance for schools implementing suicide prevention activities. Rainee Morrison, a Longview freshman, worked with YSSP and several other students to gather and decorate footwear belonging to youths who died through suicide. "Each shoe represents a youth who has taken their life. We gave them a voice they felt they didn't have,” she said. “We're hoping by giving each legislator a shoe it will hit home with them and help give YSPP more budget money."

As citizens prepared to go out in small groups to meet their legislators, lobbyist Melanie Smith encouraged them to “put a human face on abstract policy. Ask your legislators to pass the bills in the strongest form possible and funded adequately.” Which is exactly what the advocates did.

Some of their 15-minute meetings were a simple thank-you and reinforcement for representatives who already had supported suicide prevention in the House vote. Other meetings between constituents and Senators were more involved discussing the merits of the bill now before the Senate. The key question: should the state require training in suicide prevention? Absolutely, said the advocates. Primary care is the front-line of suicide prevention. They are currently not equipped to take on this role and responsibility.

Delaney Ruston, M.D., who also volunteered as Forefront’s videographer for the day, told her legislator about her father’s death by suicide and pointed out that her own training as a physician had never included suicide prevention. Coming out the same meeting, Forefront co-founder Jenn Stuber tearfully hugged her Forefront compatriots who had spoken so openly and effectively about the impact suicide has had on their lives.

“There is no magic wand to reducing suicide rates,” says Stuber. “It is going to take a public health approach to reduce the suicide rates in Washington.” This bill sends a clear signal to health professionals who are in the best position to help those who are suicidal: we need you to be part of the solution.

As people returned from their legislative meetings to debrief over pizza, Forefront project director Lauren Davis and MSW intern Stephen Miller invited them share their experiences and suggestions for making next year’s Lobby Day even better.

Forefront plans to continue to help Washington remain at the head of the curve in suicide prevention policy through its direct advocacy and education with legislators.  — by Zoe Litaker and Sue Lockett John