Rocked by suicides, Marin County residents turn despair into action

Marin County residents, rocked by rising suicides in recent years, have unveiled a strategic plan to reduce deaths and attempts. 

Key contributors include families who lost loved ones to suicide. 

"We didn't see it happening, we didn't know what was going on because it was so gradual," said Kate Ruehle of Novato, whose son Warren,17, took his life one year ago. 

Ruehle describes Warren as a happy child who was smart and sweet-natured but became more introverted as he grew older, and eventually became withdrawn.  

Still, his loving family had no idea he was despondent, as Warren and twin sister Kara entered their final semester at Novato High. 

"They're ready to go, they're ready to launch, they're going off to college", recalled Ruehle, "and he was ready to leave but it wasn't college, he was ready to leave this earth." 

She remembers Feb. 8, 2019 as just another school day. 

"I went in to wake him up," she said. "I thought he was still sleeping and I found him, and he was gone." 

Ruehle turned her despair into action, helping craft the comprehensive county plan, delivered Tuesday to the Board of Supervisors. 

She and more than a dozen other members of the community addressed the board on the topic.  

"Suicide is preventable and suicide is a community issue," said Marin County Behavioral Health Director Jei Africa, advocating for a public health approach, involving the public, government, law enforcement, the medical community and educators.

The strategy, detailed in a 120-page report, aims to reduce access to lethal means, teach warning signs, reach out to those at risk, and provide resources that save lives. 

A suicide prevention coordinator will be hired to oversee implementation. . 

High risk groups include middle-aged white men, LGBTQ youth, adolescent girls, especially Latina girls, and teenagers.

"This is very personal," said Africa, "and many families we met say they miss that person they lost and wish that things had gone differently."

County staff was startled to hear so much personal feedback while working on the report. 

"Many people in and outside of government saying this has impacted me, or I have a loved one who attempted suicide," said Chandrika Zager, Marin County Prevention and Intervention Coordinator.

"This really impacts all of us."  

Novato High has placed new emphasis on mental health this year. 

"Just last week I fit thirty students doing yoga in this space," said NHS Assistant Principal Michelle Cortez, showing off a new dedicated wellness area on campus. 

Students can use the rooms to relax and read, play music or games.

Chairs are readily arranged in a circle for interpersonal communication or to resolve conflict.

Bean bags and blankets are positioned in front of a pastoral mural, a cozy spot to ease stress and anxiety.  

"They can literally lay down and take a nap and calm themselves and then go back to class when they are more ready to learn," said Cortez.

She explains it's more than a room, but a campus-wide wellness mindset, to create a caring culture that will be supportive.

In essence, she says, anti-suicide. 

"Students need to feel seen and they need to feel heard, and they need to know what to do when things go wrong."

The safe space was something students clamored for.   

"They demanded it, the kids said we need new strategies to deal with how stressed out we are at school," said Cortez.

Over two days this week, Novato High is holding 100 wellness workshops offering everything from yoga to time management.

All of these initiatives comfort Kate Ruehle, whose says her work on the NHS wellness center also helped her heal after her son's death.

She remembers trying to coax Warren out of his isolation.  

"I tried to get him to join us, to come watch a movie with us, and he just wouldn't," she recalled. 

In hindsight, she wishes she had pushed harder, and that's her advice to parents now. 

"Have a family intervention, and make sure you're looking your kid in the eyes and asking them, how are you, how are you really doing?", said Ruehle, "and make sure they know you love them and are worried about them." 

Marin's Suicide Prevention and crisis hotline is (415)499-1100, staffed 24 hours a day.