COLFAX — After decades of work with EMS, hospice and most recently as county coroner, Annie Pillers is familiar with death. But when she started Whitman County’s Suicide Prevention, Intervention and Response Task Force, she found the only experience she needed was being human.

In 2019, Pillers noticed a rise in suicide deaths locally. Looking for a way to help those affected and prevent more deaths, she began working with other community members. Out of that effort, the task force was born.

“We see a wake of trauma that occurs not only for the family, but for the community that person lived in,” Pillers said. “That can last a lifetime. With any death, there is grief that lives forever with us. And we decided as a community that we could make a difference.”

Now roughly 40 members strong, the task force provides 60-to-90-minute training sessions in mental health first aid and “Question, Persuade, Refer” techniques to any group that requests it.

They’ve also distributed more than 5,000 double-sided resource cards since they began, with steps for helping someone who is considering suicide on one side, and measures for helping someone who is actively attempting suicide on the other.

The need for mental health support has always outstripped the professional capacity at a local level, said Mike Berney, executive director of Palouse River Counseling and collaborator on the task force. In the past two years, that demand has only increased, along with rates of depression and anxiety. The task force helps to meet some of the needs that professionals cannot.

One of the biggest tools students learn is how to talk openly, and nonjudgementally, about suicide.

“It used to be that people wouldn't even ask about if somebody was suicidal,” Bereny said. “They said, ‘All I'm going to do is make them think about it where they weren't before.’ The research is very clear. (If) they're already thinking about it, and you asking if they're thinking about it, is not going to make it worse.”

While first aid and CPR classes for physical ailments are commonplace, fewer people learn basic skills for dealing with mental health problems, said Corey Laughary, a local pastor and task force member.

“I think, personally, like CPR training, or first aid training, every business, every school, every organization should have at least a basic, one-hour, two-hour class every year. These problems are much more likely than somebody having a heart attack right in front of you,” Laughary said.

The group has worked with churches, law enforcement, college students and even middle and high school children.

The goal isn’t to turn normal people into counselors, Laughary said, but to learn how to talk about suicide and help others get to the resources they need.

“We realized the cavalry is not coming. We have the resources we have, we have to fight for the resources we have, and it's not like we're gonna have a mental health system plopped down from heaven into our lap that's gonna just fix everything,” he said. “(But) we've got a lot of people already, whether they're librarians, or grocery clerks, or teachers, or principals or EMS, that are already in their communities that want to help their neighbors get through hard things.”

This report is made possible by the Lewis-Clark Valley Healthcare Foundation in partnership with Northwest Public Broadcasting, the Lewiston Tribune and the Moscow-Pullman Daily News.

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