Arkansas’s first non-natural cause of death is by suicide, just slightly ahead of car accidents, and more than twice as often as homicide, according to the Arkansas Department of Health.
It is also one of two states in the nation without a state suicide hotline.
House Bill 1775 attempts to address that by directing the health department to create a 24-hour hotline so call takers with regional knowledge can direct callers to the best available help.
The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Bob Johnson (D-Pulaski County), passed in the full House Tuesday, and a Senate health committee Wednesday, and now goes to the full Senate.
Johnson says compared to other states, suicide is a growing problem in Arkansas.
“Arkansas moved up from number 16 to 10 last year in terms of suicides,” he said on the House floor Tuesday, referring to state rankings.
That data comes from the Centers for Disease Control. Wyoming, the other state without a hotline, is deadliest.
The health department’s Suicide Prevention Program Manager, Joy Gray, would help run the state’s 24-hour hotline. She says suicide is so stigmatized few people understand its magnitude or how to bring it up.
“You can ask about it, you can talk about it, and you’re not a bad person because you’ve had those thoughts and feelings. You just need to get some help,” she says.
In 2015, the state legislated the formation of an Arkansas Suicide Prevention Council to address the more than 571 deaths by suicide that occurred in Arkansas that year.
The health department launched its own prevention program in 2014 that includes trainings with medical professionals and schools, and a public information campaign with tips for how to help someone who is suicidal.
Gray says a health department breakdown of suicide by occupation shows it’s the state’s foresters, fishers, farmers and female firefighters are most likely to end their own lives. One in six Arkansans work in one of those professions.
Gray says the data may be partly explained by the difficulty of accessing help in rural, agricultural parts of the state.
Central Arkansas had the highest number of suicides in 2015, 129. Southeastern Arkansas had just 31.
Gray says common misperceptions about suicide include that talking about it will give someone the idea, and that it’s impossible to prevent someone from taking their own life. “The will to live is extremely strong in people even when, maybe, they’re struggling, and they’re having a hard time.”
She says people almost always give some sort of indication they’re having a hard time, and that reflects a desire, on some level, to get help.
“It is preventable,” says Gray. “Anybody can intervene.”
The department says it has funds to create the hotline and run it for two years. It will then be eligible for federal grants.
This story is produced by Arkansas Public Media, a statewide journalism collaboration among public media organizations. Arkansas Public Media reporting is funded in part through a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, with the support of partner stations KUAR, KUAF, KASU and KTXK and from members of the public. You can learn more and support Arkansas Public Media’s reporting at arkansaspublicmedia.org. Arkansas Public Media is Natural State news with context.