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Police: Don't hesitate, just make the call

File photo. Sarah Hansen / RiverTown Multimedia

Nearly every day in Red Wing, someone is struggling with suicidal thoughts.

In 2017, three residents died by suicide and local police were dispatched 98 times to check on the welfare of someone who had threatened or attempted suicide.

Calls like these, coming from individuals or friends concerned by verbal threats or "vaguebooking" dark thoughts on social media, show no sign of slowing. Already in January 2018, officers have responded 17 times to calls for service related to suicide in Red Wing.

"When people are in crisis, when things aren't normal, the only people working all the time, 24/7 — other than emergency room — is law enforcement," said Red Wing Chief of Police Roger Pohlman.

He said that right now the system is built to be reactive but he's hoping to educate his officers on mental health conditions and drug-related responses to encourage community policing that is more present and proactive.

"In this generation of law enforcement there's an era of compassion," said juvenile school liaison officer Ryan Sullivan. "There's been a swing that's showing that we're expected to understand the mental health crisis and the drug crisis and the way they're intertwined."

Red Wing police officers regularly go above the minimum amount of training required by the state to maintain their license. After realizing the high number of mental health calls for suicide and other issues, Pohlman invited experts from the National Alliance on Mental Illness to do a mandatory eight-hour presentation for his team to learn about mental illness and the different ways it can manifest for people in crisis.

Someone cares

Part of this training, Sullivan said, addressed the misnomer that people in crisis will naturally be withdrawn. This stereotype has led to the idea that people asking for help must be doing it for attention, but Sullivan said it's important to take these cries for help seriously because, in his experience, when students feel like they're not being heard, that's when they fall into trouble and begin risk-taking behavior.

"You will forever regret not calling should something happen," said Sullivan. "Making that phone call, you may be saving somebody's life without knowing it."

He added, "I personally am very grateful when a student will come in and say 'I'm worried about so and so, she made a weird comment on Facebook last night' ... I can pull in the student and let them know people here care."

Police Detective Tom Rikli, who formerly served at the high school, said people have a lot of options for support while in school. However, once they're out and not well connected, their options become limited and social services is usually called in to navigate a treatment plan.

After many years of asking troubled citizens "do you have a plan" and putting the onus on them to seek treatment, Rikli said that it's a welcome improvement for law enforcement to have a direct line with Goodhue County Health & Human Services. A recently implemented program means HHS trained staff are intervening sooner and helping to navigate the system for troubled adults. However, due to a lack of resources such as beds for mental health patients and not enough regional providers and therapists, the well-laid plans of HHS staff often hit frustrating roadblocks that delay treatment.

That's why, Sullivan said, the partnership that's happening with the school's social workers, counselors, principals, teachers, psychologist and law enforcement is so important. Maybe if they can catch more people and help "Make It OK" to talk about mental illness, people can get the help they need sooner and things will improve down the pipeline as well.

"For some reason, historically, it seems like this taboo subject to talk about mental illness. It needs to be at the forefront of our conversation because it's affecting our youth and it's affecting everybody," Sullivan said.

All ages

The number of calls made for attempted suicide in Red Wing are split fairly evenly between juveniles and adults. Sullivan said that's a deceptive number because when you consider that juveniles are 0-18 years old and adults can be 19-100-plus, the overwhelming number of calls for attempted suicide are being made for people in a very narrow age range.

Sullivan said that these issues can affect children at a shockingly young age as well. Though rare, he has dealt with a call for someone as young as 8 years old.

Where the risk is highest, he's observed, is in eighth grade when kids are experiencing new challenges and stressors like transitioning to high school, having more freedom and making more friends.

"We're giving it everything we've got," Sullivan said. "We get together and talk about it. There's something called Check & Connect here where if you have a student that seems to be struggling, seems to be alone, not fitting in a peer group, you're seeing this and it's affecting them — we have staff members that are willing to basically be an ally."

"A lot of these kids are feeling unheard," he added. "And that might not necessarily be the case, but that doesn't mean they don't feel that way. To feel as though nobody cares about you is a very lonely feeling."

How can the community help? By becoming a part of a young person's life, Sullivan said. Go to youth sporting events, become a mentor with Red Wing Youth Outreach, attend concerts in the park, get out in the community with the YMCA or your church or whatever it takes to become a visible part of a child's life.

Sullivan said, "You have to be listening, if that makes sense. They're looking for someone to listen."

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