Wolf administration creates suicide prevention task force
Department of Human Services Secretary Theresa Miller speaks at the state Capitol May 29, 2019. (Brett Sholtis/Transforming Health)
Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration is bringing together state agencies to address suicide in the commonwealth.
Suicide rates in Pennsylvania increased 34 percent between 1999 and 2016, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We have an obligation to provide resources and promote safe, supportive environments so people we serve know that there are places to turn if they are in crisis,” Wolf said in a news release.
The task force plans to meet in coming weeks, bringing together officials from the departments of Aging, Human Services, Drug and Alcohol Programs, Health, Military and Veterans Affairs, Education, Corrections and Transportation, as well as the Pennsylvania State Police and the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency.
Department of Human Services Secretary Theresa Miller emphasized that mental illness affects many aspects of life, so forming a task force will allow agencies to work together to develop policy recommendations and coordinated plans to reduce stigma.
Veterans are one community disproportiantely affected by suicide, said Brigadier General Mark Schindler, who heads the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. He said last year, 11 Pennsylvania Army National Guard servicemembers died by suicide.
“On average, nationally, we lose about 20 veterans a day to suicide,” Schindler said.
The task force also has a legislative component. Democratic State Rep. Mike Schlossberg of Lehigh County heads the mental health caucus and plans to coordinate with the group. Schlossberg, who has been candid about his own struggle with depression, noted that 47,000 people in the U.S. died by suicide last year.
“These numbers are too high,” he said, noting that 2,030 of last year’s suicide deaths occurred in Pennsylvania.
Suicide rates have risen nationwide. Miller said part of the reason is better reporting of death by suicide. However, serious social and public health problems are also factors.
“Problems with relationships, substance use, physical health conditions, a job or financial situation, and the legal system or another crisis most often contribute to suicide,” the administration said in the press release, citing CDC data. “More than 50 percent of people who die by suicide do not have a known mental health condition.”
If you or someone you love is in crisis or you are considering harming yourself, free help is available 24/7 through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
Brett Sholtis was a health reporter for WITF/Transforming Health until early 2023. Sholtis is the 2021-2022 Reveal Benjamin von Sternenfels Rosenthal Grantee for Mental Health Investigative Journalism with the Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism. His award-winning work on problem areas in mental health policy and policing helped to get a woman moved from a county jail to a psychiatric facility. Sholtis is a University of Pittsburgh graduate and a Pennsylvania Army National Guard Kosovo campaign veteran.