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Inside N.C.’s Digital Approach to Suicide Prevention, Awareness

The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services is bridging barriers to mental health resources surrounding suicide through a digitized strategy fusing chat and text connectivity, alongside online training for community leaders.

A desktop calendar turned to September 2023 with "suicide prevention month" written at the top.
Suicide is a national public health crisis that extends well beyond an individual, touching the lives of families in ways that are often impossible to articulate.

States nationwide are establishing technological pathways to connect individuals that are grappling with mental health challenges to dedicated professionals who can serve as advocates in their time of need.

The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) reported that in the past year, 1,539 North Carolinians aged 10 and above died by suicide, elevating it to the second leading cause of death in the state among individuals aged 10-40.

In 2022, for every death by suicide in North Carolina, the state witnessed two hospitalizations and eight emergency department visits due to self-inflicted injuries, resulting in 2,969 hospitalizations and 12,287 emergency department visits.

To reduce these troubling statistics, the state is working to infuse tech tools and digital training to prepare community leaders to effectively engage with those experiencing a mental health crisis.

NCDHHS has been a central part of this effort, leading the work on one of the state’s largest resources for suicide prevention — the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. The system connects people via a call, chat or text to a trained counselor who will listen, offer support and provide community resources 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. According to NCDHHS, the state has seen a significant increase in North Carolinians reaching out for support since launching last year.

“We really try to instill the message that if you’re thinking that you might need to call, then you should call, chat or text us right at that moment — don’t wait, pick up the phone and make that call,” Lisa DeCiantis, NCDHHS Crisis Services team lead, said. “After they contact us through 988, they are offered resources that might already be present in their community, or we connect them with other ongoing services and resources to meet whatever their needs are at that time.”

DeCiantis said NCDHHS partnered with the national Suicide & Crisis Lifeline to launch the 988 system in the state using the Vibrant platform for chat and text. The system is continuing to expand, with a new option recently being added to request a call or chat specifically with a veteran or someone trained in veteran mental health support.

NCDHHS also provides an array of online training programs designed to empower individuals and organizations to become effective mental health advocates.

Its Faith Leaders for Life online program, meanwhile, is tailored to equip leaders of faith-based organizations with the essential skills and knowledge to provide support to those at risk of suicide. This is vital since community members frequently turn to these leaders for guidance and support when navigating life stressors. The program is completed remotely over five weeks.

“Each week, during the training, these faith leaders come together through a virtual platform, review course material, and have a collaborative conversation about what they learned, how they’re going to apply those tools, and what obstacles they might see in their congregations,” explained Jane Miller, NCDHHS Comprehensive Suicide Prevention program manager.

NCDHHS is currently in its sixth cohort of the program, and actively diversifies its offerings by proactively engaging with congregations from Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) communities, according to Miller.

The agency also works to provide online training related to suicide prevention for anyone who interacts with veterans or active military in a mental health support capacity.

“This training comprises virtual video scenarios that encourage participant interaction by presenting various potential reaction choices to different scenarios involving a veteran and letting users choose which response is best,” Miller described. “Participants can assess the effectiveness of their responses based on the unfolding virtual scenario, allowing them to reflect on their communication style when speaking with a veteran that is experiencing a mental health crisis.”

To date, the program has successfully trained 184 individuals, including 77 chaplains (both military and non-military) and 107 participants from various other fields. Miller shared that the NCDHHS has forged partnerships with 16 organizations to bring the program to life.

“Those who have gone through the training were so empowered that they went on to create Wellness Wednesday programs at their respective churches, where every Wednesday they utilize their YouTube channels to engage with their congregants about a designated health topic regarding mental health and suicide,” Miller said.

DeCiantis also reflected on a recent student suicide prevention and awareness program NCDHHS led by utilizing social media.

“Our most recent suicide awareness campaign was focused on providing middle and high schoolers with greater knowledge of the 988 resources available as school began,” she said. “We provided materials with information about our 988 lifeline for teachers and students to be able to share the information in the place they visit the most — social media.”

Moving forward, NCDHHS plans to continue expanding its digital training tools, with a particular focus on reaching underserved rural areas in North Carolina where digital resources may not always be readily accessible.
Ashley Silver is a staff writer for Government Technology. She holds an undergraduate degree in journalism from the University of Montevallo and a graduate degree in public relations from Kent State University. Silver is also a published author with a wide range of experience in editing, communications and public relations.