Before It Gets Better: Local Nonprofit Teaches Suicide Prevention
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People who face mental health challenges can struggle with a range of conditions and symptoms. Thoughts of suicide can be a factor for some, regardless of age, race or profession. The Front Porch Coalition in Rapid City trains people and organizations on how to help prevent suicide and recognize when people are suffering a mental health crisis.

The Front Porch Coalition in Rapid City offers a variety of classes on prevention, substance abuse disorders and mental health issues. The non-profit provides training that is specific to different professions as well as courses for the general public. Stephanie Schweitzer Dixon is the Executive Director and teaches the training classes.

“Our trainings encompasses everyone from a parent, a business owner, anyone that would encounter anybody on the street that you’re just passing by, to the first responder-who is typically who we call to have to have that welfare check done on someone we’re concerned about-to the mental health professional. The counselors, the doctors, nurses, people in the emergency room.”

Dixon says they also offer classes for teachers, college staff, care professionals who work with the elderly and clergy members. The Coalition teaches eight different evidence-based suicide prevention classes --  most last up to one day. The Coalition has worked with dozens of organizations in Rapid City and around the region. Dixon says their goal is to prevent a mental health crisis from turning more deadly.

“The numbers, the statistics, they speak for themselves. We have death by suicide occuring in every age group from the ages of 10 and up. We have to make sure that we are proactive instead of reactive. And so often in our society we react after a crisis has occurred.”

About half the classes are funded by grants and free to the public. There are a few courses for professionals that the Coalition charges for. But Dixon says most of the classes provide valuable basics for anyone to know.

She says when people are in deep despair and can consider suicide, often times they won’t address suicide unless they’re directly asked about it.

“Most people don’t go get help themselves. They don’t just pick up the phone. They don’t just call a psychiatrist. They don’t just call their doctor for a referral. They tend to need to be asked first. And it’s just the way that the brain works in a situation like that unless they’ve been through this before and they know who to go to and they have a regular physiatrist. But even then not everybody goes.”

This kind of training is mandatory in some fields. South Dakota Law Enforcement officers are required to take two hours of training each year. The Pennington County Sheriff's Department and Rapid City Police Department try to give each new recruit 40 hours of Crisis Intervention training through the Front Porch Coalition. The programs focus on suicide prevention, mental health, substance abuse and techniques to diffuse situations.

Tony Verchio is the Training Manager at the Pennington County Sheriff's Department. He says the classes help expose new recruits to resources in the community that can be an alternative to jail for people in a mental health crisis.  

“There’s a lot of things that go on in jails that are counterproductive to helping them while they’re experiencing whatever their issues might be. They’re loud, they’re noisy, too bright, they possible could be victimized by others in the jail who are going to take advantage of their situation.” 

Verchio says officers who go through training are more able to de-escalate situations when they are the first on a scene. He says they’re often able to find a better place for people in crisis--which can provide more appropriate treatment and also free up jail cells.

The classes teach valuable communication skills Verchio says deputies frequently use.

“The communication skills and de escalation skills that we teach them to deal with people that are in crisis benefit them every time they go on a call for service. It teaches them to communicate more effectively, to get their message across and it helps them to understand that oftentimes time is on our side when we respond to a call for service.”

Verchio says it’s valuable for law enforcement officers who work in the jail or out in the field to receive some sort of ongoing training throughout their career.

The Front Porch Coalition offers free suicide prevention, mental health and substance abuse crisis training courses to the public year round. They also provide counseling programs for people who have lost someone to suicide.