St. Tammany Parish coroner vows to curb suicide rate, reform North Shore mental healthcare system

LACOMBE, LA (WVUE) - The new St. Tammany coroner vows to help reform mental health services in the parish.

His plans should help curb, what the coroner said, may be one of the top-five highest suicide rates in the state.

"Suicide is the tragic end result of uncontrolled mental illness," said St. Tammany Parish Coroner Dr. Charles Preston.

Just a month into the job as St. Tammany Parish's new coroner, Dr. Charles Preston has already taken steps, along with the parish president and other public and private partners, to reform the mental health system across the North Shore.

"I think the basic quest is to try to give people access before they're in crisis," said Preston.

To oversee the process, Preston made sure his director of mental health was no longer a contracted position, but instead, an employee of the coroner's office.

"I felt like it was more appropriate to have that as an employed position because we have a lot more supervision over what that job entails," said Preston.

The plan is to reach the mentally ill before they end up in the hospital, where they can spend up to two weeks being evaluated before receiving treatment.

"The key then, though, is to find that mental health bed available, and that's really the problem. There are not a lot of mental health beds available," said Preston. "There's been some discussion of short term facilities for eight or 10 beds that will house people for two or three days to help them be evaluated, get them on medication and get them over that hump of crisis."

"At East Jefferson Hospital, we had a psychiatric social worker in the emergency room 24-hours a day, 7-days a week, and very often we were able to abort an admission because we were able to provide very close follow up," said Preston.

He said another push will be to educate people on what signs to look out for before someone attempts to end their life.

"Better to lose a friendship than a friend," said Tarola Gross, coordinator of the program Teen Life Counts, a suicide prevention and awareness program through the Jewish Family Service of Greater New Orleans.

Teen Life Counts trains teachers as well as middle and high school students to spot warning signs.

"If a kid is experiencing a problem, a kid will go to their peer, and we know that kids are very loyal to each other, and kids will keep secrets from adults. It's important for kids to know, this is not a secret you keep. This is a secret you break," said Gross.

Gross said they trained more than 7,000 kids across Orleans and Jefferson Parish Public Schools along with a few parochial schools in St. Tammany during the 2013-2014 school year. She said more than 900 of those kids referred a friend to a counselor or requested mental help.

Gross said she hopes to spread the training program to St. Tammany Public Schools.

"I think that's exactly like some of the things that we're looking at," Dr. Charles Preston said in regards to the Teen Life Counts program.

"These are people who usually have lost hope and have nothing but desperation. I would say that they have to keep in mind that it's not always going to be like this. I think for our parish it's not always going to be like this. We can look forward to a brighter day," said Preston.

According to Center for Disease Control data, Dr. Charles Preston said there are 40 to 50 suicides per year in St. Tammany Parish.

Nationwide, the American Association of Suicidology says suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death for youth between the ages of 15 and 24.

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