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New Jefferson County board aims to strengthen suicide prevention efforts by reviewing local data

The image shows a navy-and-white logo for the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.
988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline
The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline provides free, confidential support and can be reached by calling or texting 988. In Jefferson County, a new board is working to improve local suicide prevention efforts.

After years of development, Louisville Metro Government has formed a board to examine data on local deaths by suicide. It brings people together in new ways, with the goal of improving intervention efforts.

This story discusses suicide. If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can reach the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by phone at 988, or online at https://988lifeline.org/.

A directory of mental health providers in Jefferson County is available at mentalhealthlou.com.

The Jefferson County Suicide Fatality Review Board comprises nearly 30 members who have a wide range of expertise.

Members include victim advocates and faith-based leaders, as well as representatives from Seven Counties Services, psychiatric hospitals, the Robley Rex VA Medical Center and the Louisville Metro Police Department.

“It really helps to have such a variety of perspectives because everyone is interacting with suicide loss from a different angle,” said board member Laura Frey, who’s an associate professor at the University of Louisville. “Having all that insight and that perspective is incredibly helpful as we think about: What are things that could have been done differently? How can we learn from these losses to try to prevent … future ones?”

The board officially convened for the first time in June. It meets every other month, with the next meeting scheduled for December.

Chelsea Burton is on the board and also works as a community health manager for the Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness. She said early discussions about establishing a board like this began back in 2018.

Momentum for the project picked up after congressional Democrats and President Joe Biden approved the American Rescue Plan Act — a $1.9 trillion stimulus package — in March 2021.

Over the next couple of years, Burton said the public health department and community partners worked to develop the board and secure ARP funding for it.

A working group that included people from the public health department, the Louisville Health Advisory Board and other organizations laid the groundwork for the future board.

The ARP ultimately contributed $400,000 to Louisville Metro Government for suicide prevention efforts, and half of that is devoted to supporting the fatality review board’s work, Burton said. The money funds a research team led by Frey at U of L’s Kent School of Social Work and Family Science.

The team analyzes data from the coroner’s office on local suicide deaths. The data doesn't list identifiable information on the people who died.

“We were brought on to really look at that coroner’s data and … try to make some sense of it,” Frey said. “To look for: What are possible trends that we’re seeing? What are the groups that are most at risk?”

Burton told LPM News that the research team looks for patterns and potential intervention points. That work is core to the fatality review board’s overarching mission.

Burton said the goal is to:

  • Identify missed opportunities for prevention and locate gaps in the system.
  • Build working relationships between local stakeholders concerning suicide prevention.
  • Inform suicide prevention strategies based on the local data.

One issue that’s already on the new board’s radar is a recent increase in deaths by suicide in Jefferson County.

There was a 23.6% rise in local deaths by suicide in 2022 compared to 2019, with 183 reported cases versus 148 cases.

Frey said there was a decline in local deaths by suicide in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, but that trend reversed later on.

The new fatality review board’s task is to dig deeper into the complex circumstances that surround the deaths, as part of its long-term effort to better understand and address the risk factors that affect local residents.

She emphasized that help is available for people who are experiencing thoughts of suicide.

“There are absolutely interventions that work around suicide risk. There are folks — trained professionals — here in our community that are prepared and eager to help,” Frey said. “So it's not a hopeless thing, even though it may feel that way.”

Burton and Frey both noted that suicide prevention efforts are already underway in the community. The new review board aims to help make those efforts more targeted toward people who are most at risk.

Though the two-year grant from the ARP runs through the end of 2024, Burton said there is no end date for the fatality review board.

“We don't want this work to end even when the American Rescue Plan money ends,” she said. “Our goal is that this board is sustainable throughout the years to come here in Louisville.”

Morgan is LPM's health reporter. Email Morgan at mwatkins@lpm.org.