PENSACOLA, Fla. (WKRG) — With September being Suicide Awareness Month, WKRG News 5 spoke with Baptist Hospital Executive Director of Behavioral Health Services Eric Rutledge for him to explain why the month is important for the community.

“Suicide Awareness Month brings attention to an ever-increasing problem that we face,” said Rutledge. “Not just here in Pensacola, but across the country.”

Rutledge said the rates of successful suicide attempts has almost doubled in children less than 14-years-old.

“It’s a huge thing for us, especially for us here at Baptist because we have the only child and adolescent unit in the area,” said Rutledge. “The next highest increase is 85 years old and older. A lot of people don’t realize that is the next highest increase in successful suicides. It is a huge issue for us.”

There are several things that Rutledge said they, the state and mental health organizations across the country, have put into place that have helped combat suicide, including the new mental health number 9-8-8.

“We have really started making some progress on things that have come out of the pandemic,” said Rutledge. “By changing the national suicide number from a long 800 number that you have to remember to 9-8-8, we are streamlining those services and making it easier for people to get help. This year it is a little more important to us because we are just now rolling out 9-8-8. It’s a really big deal to us.”

According to Rutledge, 80 percent of what the hospital sees in a year has suicidal thought processes in place.

“That might not be the only thing they are admitted with,” said Rutledge. “We admit about 4,000 people a year. So, on any given day, that can be about 40 to 60 of our patients, that are in house, that came in with active suicidal thoughts, may have attempted, planned or had a history of it.”

Looking from the outside in, Rutledge said there are several signs you can see if a person is dealing with suicidal thoughts.

“If you are talking to someone, a lot of times they will mention wanting to die and that is not just morose in the conversation, it might be jokingly that they say that in the conversation, but the thought process is there and intact,” said Rutledge. “Don’t think that it is always going to be a serious conversation when you’re talking with someone who may be having these thoughts. If they have exhibited some reckless behavior, had mood swings, not sleeping regularly, exhibited some weight loss or gain, I know that is a bit of everything, but if you have noticed a change in normal behavior, that may be an indicator.”

One of the biggest factors in suicidal thought processes and attempts, according to Rutledge, is the use of alcohol and drugs.  

“A lot of people don’t realize that alcohol and most narcotics are actually a depressant,” said Rutledge. “It does give them a little bit of a boost, but then it has the low that comes with it. Overall, it may give you temporary euphoria, but the vast majority of people that successfully complete suicide have some level of drug or alcohol abuse.”

Some people dealing with pain or chronic illness may also have suicidal thoughts, Rutledge said. 

“If someone is in a lot of pain, that can preoccupy you,” said Rutledge. “Think of when you have a headache, or migraine, it’s all encompassing and it’s all you can focus on. So, those individuals with chronic pain or a chronic illness, a lot of times, it can lead to suicidal thoughts.”

Over the last 10 years, Rutledge said they have noticed a trend where suicides have become more impulsive than planned out.

“The actual act of committing suicide has been very impulsive over the last 10 years,” said Rutledge. “Even if it is well thought out, it is kind of one of those things where you ‘take the leap.’ We have seen this become more prevalent than the well thought out plan that people usually consider. In doing that, a lot of the risk indicators that we have seen in the past, don’t necessarily translate well anymore. Usually, we look at white males are the most prevalent to do it, and they are still a factor, but we are seeing an increase in different demographics that doesn’t hold to historical data.”

When it comes to dealing with suicidal thoughts, Rutledge said there are several coping mechanisms, but each person is unique.

“We do a lot of training on that, because when you come in, I can’t change everything about your life circumstances,” said Rutledge. “One of the big things that we like to tell them is to focus on the here and now. People can get obsessed with things and plan for the future. We all get a little anxious when we think about things long-term. So, we tell them to think about today and not worry about tomorrow. Sometimes, it’s not even about getting through today, it’s about getting through what’s right in front of them.”

For those who are struggling with suicidal thoughts, there are several apps that Rutledge recommends that may help.

“These apps will help distract you, have contacts that you can reach out to and talk with,” said Rutledge. “Some of them are MY3, notOK, Virtual Hope Box and there is one called Better Help, which you pay a subscription for, and you can be connected with a counselor that is familiar with your case 24/7. We have a crisis box that you can put together. I think of it as a hurricane survival kit for suicidal thoughts. The MY3 app, specifically, has a list of contacts that you think are supportive and you just click their button, and it automatically connects. One that I think is pretty cool, is called distrACT, and it pops up a game like Words With Friends, but you’re playing with a counselor and they can talk you through what is going on. We encourage people to download those apps.”

In May, Baptist Hospital announced it is building a $30 million behavioral health unit that will offer treatment to senior citizens, adults, adolescents and children. The new behavioral health unit will have 72-bed behavioral health beds and also feature a room that combines a variety of stimuli, including special lighting, colors and sound, which help people develop, engage and regulate their senses.

“Right now, all of our rooms are double beds. So, there are a lot of rooms where we can only put one patient in at a time,” said Rutledge. “The majority of rooms in our new facility will be private, so when you come in, there is not a chance of you having to share a room with someone. We have new electronic monitoring here, which will be moving over there. The facility itself is built to be relaxing. We have incorporated gardens off of every single unit that is there. We have gone through sensory room, put in state-of-the-art furniture. Every room is anti-ligature. We have a focus right now on our ligature mitigation and I mean everything down to the bolts that we use to put things together, we make sure we are putting things in that if people are wanting to hurt themselves, they cannot use what we put in there to hurt themselves. We are just so proud of what we have designed and the final outcome. We can’t wait to show it to the community. It is full of light and is going to be uplifting and pleasant.”

The behavioral health unit will be on the new campus for Baptist Health at the intersection of Brent Lane and I-110 in Pensacola. It is scheduled to begin offering treatment beginning fall 2023.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, call 9-8-8, or visit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

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