Fort Worth, Texas,
11:45 AM

Cook Children’s Community Task Force Leading Discussion on Suicide Prevention and Mental Health

Eighteen in a series.

Partners from health care and other fields are teaming up in an expanded collaboration geared to brainstorm and implement strategies to prevent suicides in North Texas.

Participants represent a variety of vantage points including mental health, housing, poverty alleviation, youth services and education. Yet they share the same concerns about the escalating rates of anxiety and depression that can lead to suicide. The Center for Children’s Health, led by Cook Children’s, summoned the partners together earlier this year through the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Task Force.

“It just works better from a community perspective if it’s really a community-driven need and a community-driven response, than if it’s just one organization pushing it out. We need everybody’s support in tackling this issue,” said Lenee Bassham, who oversees the ACEs Task Force in her role as director of child safety.

The Task Force has existed since 2017, working to mitigate the effects of trauma on children who live with domestic violence, neglect/abuse, a parent’s incarceration or other chronic adversity. The Center for Children’s Health last May bumped up the Task Force membership to about 25 people in an effort to address the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In meetings over the spring and summer, the participants shared their observations, concerns and vision for improving access to mental health services in Tarrant County. Organizers hope that the dialogue will eventually lead to agreement on top priorities and a plan for action.

One theme that already has emerged? The need for a clear and consistent message that could be promoted by schools, medical providers, agencies or anyone who works with families. Bassham cited the Cook Children's Aim for Safety® initiative as an example of cohesive communication. Aim for Safety® simplifies the need-to-know message into three steps to prevent accidental gun injuries: “Safe storage. Safe children. Safe play.”

A similarly cohesive message when it comes to suicide, she said, could equip parents to know the warning signs and to find help for kids and teens who struggle with mental health. And the appeal broadens when multiple voices weigh in to shape the message’s content.

“When we have everyone’s buy-in, it’s much better to push messaging out in the community,” Bassham said. “We could take years on a messaging campaign, but we don’t want that to happen. We want to move as quickly as possible.”

The urgency stems from a dramatic rise in suicide attempts, which experts link to emotional distress during the COVID-19 pandemic. Cook Children’s, for instance, saw 261 patients hospitalized due to injuries following suicide attempts from January-July 2021. That compares to 143 hospitalizations for injuries in the aftermath of suicide attempts from January-July 2020.

In response, Cook Children’s has launched the Joy Campaign, a series of news articles and materials that spotlight the efforts being made to turn the trend around. The Joy Campaign focuses on avenues of hope and resiliency.

Bassham said the ACEs Task Force members plan to meet again in September to continue the teamwork approach. Their discussions could eventually pave the way for proposals that raise suicide awareness and improve the outlook for families in the Fort Worth area.

The World Health Organization (WHO) describes community engagement as an essential and effective aspect of suicide prevention globally. WHO advises that the process should involve stakeholders from diverse backgrounds who know the community’s demographics. Diversity improves the input by enlarging the group’s base of skills and creative thinking.

Prevention of suicide cannot be accomplished by one person, organization or institution alone; it requires support from the whole community,” according to a WHO publication in 2018. “Each community can adapt and design its own plan, tools and activities to ensure that these best fit the community and are acceptable and appropriate to the local context.”

Bassham said it’s too soon to predict just yet what concrete action might arise from the ACEs Task Force talks. Each partner brings a unique viewpoint to the conversation. Let’s hear from three of the members.

Lachelle Goodrich, licensed professional counselor

Lachelle Goodrich suggested that the Task Force develop a process map that breaks down the path to treatment for suicidal kids in North Texas. She envisions a chart that directs parents when to act and places to turn, depending on the child’s age.

“Sometimes parents just don’t know the questions to ask or the signs to look for,” said Goodrich, who also serves as director of the Stop Six Choice Neighborhood Initiative for Fort Worth Housing Solutions. “Parents are stuck because we don’t know where to begin, where to start. ‘Do I call a therapist? Do I go to the hospital? What do I do?’”

She urges parents to have courageous and regular conversations about mental health. Be your child’s biggest advocate, and don’t be afraid to reach out for intervention, she said.

“The more I work with teens, the more they educate me. I feel like it’s my duty to turn around and educate the parents and the community.”

Ottis Goodwin, Fort Worth Independent School District

When an assessment finds that a student is considered at-risk for suicide, the Fort Worth Independent School District provides a list of area options for treatment. But that list doesn’t indicate which facilities have current openings for new patients, said Ottis Goodwin, director of Family & Community Resources for FWISD.

“When we give families that information, we have no idea who’s full and who’s not full,” Goodwin said. “The family may show up and not be able to be admitted.” He would like to see a system that tracks up-to-date bed availability.

Another suggestion from Goodwin: Closer ties between the district and the inpatient facilities, to ease students’ transition back to campus after hospitalization.

“Oftentimes we don’t know that they’re coming back into school, so we don’t really have a good support plan for their return, because it wasn’t communicated to us,” he said.

Last school year, Goodwin distributed magnets and crisis contact information sheets – developed by the Joy Campaign, in English and Spanish – to counselors and other staff throughout FWISD. He applauded the Task Force for tackling the weaknesses where improvements could be made.

“The fact that we’re together and having these conversations is huge. We need those people pushing and organizing like what Cook has been doing. If you get the right people at the table, then you can make the change.”

Virginia Hoft, Mental Health Connection of Tarrant County (MHC)

Through the Recognize and Rise education campaign at MHC, executive director Virginia Hoft shares information about healing in the aftermath of trauma. Hoft would like to see the Task Force find a way to identify gaps and duplications in local mental health services.

Hoft also recommends adopting age-appropriate curriculum that equips young children with skills for coping with stress. Don’t wait until junior high to talk about suicide, she said. “Just like we’ve done with ‘Stranger Danger’ and drug education, it’s information that kids need to grow up with.”

By working in tandem, the ACEs Task Force partners and other advocates can make a collective impact to prevent suicide and improve mental health in our region, Hoft said.

“What brings me hope is the open-mindedness around having collaborative conversations about how we can work on this in the most efficient manner, to get us all rolling in the same direction.”

About the Joy Campaign

Cook Children's Joy Campaign is a communication initiative that aims to encourage hope and resilience among children and teens.

Joy stands for: Just breathe. Open up. You matter.

The number of children and teens suffering from anxiety, stress and depression is skyrocketing. Sadly, Cook Children's has seen a record number of patients attempting suicide in the past year. The Joy Campaign is a suicide prevention communication initiative led by Cook Children's to bring hope and needed resources to children and families facing struggles and dark times in their lives.

Learn more about the Joy Campaign and available mental health resources here. 

Support Cook Children's Rees-Jones Behavioral Health Center

You can help support the work being done through the Rees-Jones Behavioral Health Center at Cook Children’s by making a donation today. Visit our website by clicking here.

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