Alarmed about recent suicide attempts and deaths, Carver County is pulling out the stops to educate citizens about the early warning signs of trouble.
The county already has crisis intervention and outpatient services, but officials said those programs don't go far enough to prevent suicides.
"Everything's reactive," said Shawna Vivant, who works on Carver County's mental health crisis team. "We need to be proactive in mental health issues and suicide prevention."
Driving the concern is that Carver reported eight suicides in the first half of 2012, compared with nine in all of 2011 and eight in 2010.
Two of this year's deaths were high school students in Norwood Young America. Coming only two months apart, they hit a nerve in the community and prompted parents and others to press the county for more information about suicide prevention, Vivant said.
The centerpiece of the new effort is a Mental Health Consortium, formed last May with concerned citizens and representatives of key community agencies. Among other activities, it will sponsor a two-hour Suicide Prevention Forum on Nov. 17 at the Ridgeview Medical Center in Waconia. Vivant said it will be the first of several quarterly meetings to increase education and awareness.
"There's a big stigma associated with mental health issues," Vivant said. "We need to talk about it to prevent suicides, and if somebody's not doing OK, we need to get them help. We don't want them to think that they're alone."
The consortium also wants to develop critical incident intervention teams -- school counselors, social workers or other citizens who would receive voluntary training to provide quicker responses to people in trouble. It also expects to improve communications and publicity about mental health resources already available.
The effort, Vivant said, is to create a "sustainable, holistic approach to mental wellness in Carver County."
Melanie Warm, mental health crisis program supervisor for Carver and Scott counties, said the needs are greater than most people realize.
Her team responded to 252 suicide attempts and 689 suicide threats or plans in the two counties in 2011. The numbers don't include cases where only law enforcement was involved, with no assessments by mental health workers.
Those statistics don't make the two counties worse than others, Warm said, but they illustrate how widespread mental health problems are, even though tragedies involving young people may get more attention.
Middle-age men have always been a high-risk population for suicide, she said, and especially in recent years. "It's worse because of losing jobs, losing homes, divorces, breakups in families and people kind of losing their identity," Warm said.
Also troubling is that many people with depression and other mental health problems are not seeking help early enough because they have no insurance or high deductibles, she said.
Warning signs of suicide can include changes in behavior, sleep patterns and eating habits, Warm said, as well as low self-esteem, recent loss, no hope for the future and especially talking about dying.
"Anytime somebody says 'I just wish I was dead,' it should be talked about and asked about immediately," she said, "not just blown off as someone looking for attention."
Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388