This article discusses suicide. If you or someone you know is in crisis, call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, which is available 24/7. More information about warning signs of suicide risk and treatment resources throughout Ohio are available here

ATHENS, Ohio (WCMH) — During a day of work, Megan Darnell might be found calling patients, writing them postcards, or training others on emergency suicide prevention techniques. 

Her role as one of two Zero Suicide care transition coordinators for southeast Ohio physician group Hopewell Health Centers is rare. “I wouldn’t say that it’s a common position, and certainly, there are probably really only a few of us scattered around,” Darnell said. 

The volume of work can ebb and flow, but in four years, she’s connected with a swath of Vinton, Athens and Hocking county residents. 

“It’s hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people,” Darnell said. 

In southeast Ohio, suicide rates among some of the highest

Data from the Ohio Department of Health showed that suicide rates rose by 8% after two years of decline. Five Ohioans died by suicide, on average, every day of 2021.

Among Ohio’s 88 counties, only one of the 15 counties with the highest suicide rates from 2017 to 2021 was a nonrural county. Nine of those 14 rural counties with the highest rates were situated in Appalachian parts of the state. 

In the southeast corner of the state, Gallia County saw an average rate of 28.1 suicides per 100,000, which was the highest recorded in Ohio during that time. Rates in neighboring counties Jackson, Vinton and Meigs were all also above 20. 

Tony Coder, executive director of the Ohio Suicide Prevention Foundation, said one a lack of accessibility contributes to the numbers seen year-after-year in Ohio’s rural communities. 

“If you get into Jackson, Gallia Counties, down by the Ohio river, you might have to travel a county or two just to find somebody to seek care from,” Coder said. “It’s literally an access to care issue that needs to be addressed.”

Getting to and from mental health care services — and even accessing them online in the absence of reliable broadband — are two of several challenges southeast Ohio residents are more likely to face, Diane Pfaff said. She is the executive director of the 317 Board, or the Athens-Hocking-Vinton Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services Board. 

Southeast Ohioans also often face lower incomes, food insecurity, and housing woes at “elevated levels,” she said — all social determinants of health that can affect suicide risk factors. 

Although the suicide rate in Athens County was lower than bordering counties, it is often an “anomaly” because of its transient population of largely students at Ohio University, board deputy director Svea Maxwell said.

In other counties, the distance from one neighbor to another might be more drastic. 

“Some of our counties are the least densely populated, like Meigs County basically has one of the biggest distances between population from person to person or household to household,” Darnell said. “The other thing that comes along with that is it’s very socially isolating.” 

‘Tremendous new investments’ in mental health resources

Still, Maxwell sees areas of progress in the region.

“One of the better parts is that people are talking about it more, and that’s something that we’ve really been working on as far as stigma reduction,” Maxwell said.

Darnell offers QPR — or “Question, Persuade, and Refer” — training as part of her position, which is grant-funded. The hour-long program teaches non-mental health professionals to pinpoint whether someone might be suicidal and how to assist them.

Pfaff lauded Gov. Mike DeWine’s administration for its work with mental health services. “There’s been tremendous new investments into crisis services under the DeWine administration,” she said.

Extra state funds got a mobile crisis team in Athens County off its feet, she said, and other mobile resources for minors are in the works throughout southeast Ohio.