CULLMAN – As we reported last week, Cullman County has seen a frightening increase in the number of suicides in 2017 compared to last year. (See: www.cullmansense.com/articles/2017/02/02/cullman-co-sees-frightening-increase-suicides) We sat down with Cullman City Police Chief Kenny Culpepper to get his thoughts on this troubling trend.
As to why such a tragic outbreak has occurred, authorities have yet to determine why so many are occurring so rapidly.
"It's too early to try and establish a causative effect," said Culpepper of these particular cases.
He addressed general mental health trends related to cases he has dealt with as chief.
"Substance abuse is a big factor,” he shared, "and mental illness is a big factor, obviously in cases like we just had." (Culpepper was referring to the case on Feb. 1, when a local man barricaded himself inside his home and eventually set fire to the residence. See: www.cullmansense.com/articles/2017/02/01/sbi-and-state-fire-marshal-leading-investigation-wednesday-nights-fatal-fire)
The chief pointed out that multiple factors often coincide to push a person to the brink:
"Someone's wife divorces them, and they're in depression; so, they've got mental health issues. And so, they're self-medicating with something and they end up committing suicide. Did the divorce cause it? Was it the depression or mental illness caused by the divorce, or was it them using drugs or alcohol or whatever? It's hard to generalize, because each case is unique."
Culpepper says he is concerned about public perception of police responses to suicide threats and mental health issues in general. He stated that law enforcement agencies, who are typically targets of much second-guessing when something goes wrong, are not often called in until a situation has already escalated to a dangerous level.
"We're called in at the point of crisis," he said. "We get a call from a family member or friend who says, 'My best friend just texted me that they're going to kill themselves and they live in the city of Cullman, and I live in Louisiana,' or that kind of thing. We're introduced to the scene, and it's already reached that crisis stage. We're only catching a narrow slice of it, and we're there at the worst possible moment."
The CPD does not have a full-time psychologist on staff; few police departments do. It does have an officer trained in negotiation techniques, and recently enrolled two additional officers in training specific to de-escalation of suicide and mental health cases. In cases where the victim can be talked down, emergency medical services can transport a victim to a regular hospital like Cullman Regional, and police will alert family members to locally available mental health resources, such as Mental Healthcare of Cullman.
Culpepper pointed out, though, that mental health resources are limited.
He had words of praise for local offices and personnel, "They're great. They're doing everything they can; they're going step by step. But once they've done the evaluation, it may be out of their hands."
Culpepper noted that extreme cases often need long-term residential care, a service for which local providers are usually not equipped. To compound the problem, the state has been actively reducing those very resources under its control.
According to Culpepper, "Cullman Area Mental Health will say, 'Yes, he needs assistance.' Then they try to find a bed in a facility where he can be treated and evaluated by a psychiatrist or doctor, but there's no long-term beds, and few short-term beds. The state has cut back on funding for mental health millions of dollars since 2009, and closed hospitals."
Mental health patients from the Cullman area have been taken to state facilities in Decatur and Tuscaloosa in the past, but both of those facilities are closed now.
"They're closing these big facilities," said Culpepper, "and the theory was that they were going to start giving more money to communities to provide assistance and keep it in the community. I'm all in favor of that; for the majority of people that's great. But you've got that small percentage that have to have some kind of long-term mental care under supervision, and it's not available. So, they're in a short-term facility, getting the medicine and support they need, and they improve to a certain level, then they need that bed space for someone who's just had his episode. So, he goes back home, and does okay for a month or two, and then has another episode."
He continued, "After a cycle or two of that, they wind up in jail or prison, because family and police don't know what to do, and there's not any room anywhere. We want them to get treated, we want them to get better, we don't want to arrest them. But there's almost always going to be some kind of criminal charge, and we have to do something. Law enforcement and corrections have become a dumping ground to warehouse these people who can't function at the community level.
"There's a proposed House bill in the Alabama State Legislature to mandate that they teach this in the academies, and that training be required for officers. That's wonderful, and I'm all for it. The more training we can get, the better; and it may save a life. But that's not going to solve the problem. They've also had someone talking about a program to train teachers to spot kids who are having issues at a young age, so they can start getting help before they become adults. But that's not going to solve the problem. The police are de-escalating and putting people into the system, and teachers are reporting to mental health that a child may be having a problem. What do you do with them then? That's the problem. Does mental health have the resources and the bed space to give them the long-term care they need? The state of Alabama has got to fund the staff and the facilities to sort those out and give them long-term care, instead of pushing them back into the community."
Last Wednesday's suicide victim had a history of mental health issues, and a team of CPD officers received commendations for saving him during an attempt last fall. Lt. Jeff Warnke, Sgt. Scott Sanford, Officer Clint Sanford, Officer Roy Bates, Officer Intae Suh, Officer Jeff Mize, Sgt. Adam Clark, Officer Adam Walker and Sgt. Christopher Nichols, along with Cullman Fire Rescue Chief Ed Reinhardt, Jr. were recognized at the Cullman City Council's Oct. 2016 meeting. (See: www.cullmansense.com/articles/2016/10/25/celebration-max-recognition-brave-and-investment-cullman-s-future)
Culpepper praised his officers for their efforts then and last week, saying they did everything they could do with the training, experience and equipment they had at their disposal. The victim ultimately needed more help than any police officer could be expected to provide in a moment of full-blown crisis.
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