Mental health has the potential to affect everyone in a community, from people living with a mental illness to their families, friends and employers. It makes sense, then, for community members to work together to improve Paducah's mental health.

That's the driving force behind the West Kentucky Mental Health Work Group, which holds its next meeting at 9 a.m. Wednesday at Four Rivers Behavioral Health. The group includes not only representatives from area hospitals and behavioral health providers, but also members of law enforcement, educators and people who work in the nonprofit sector.

"It's made up of people from all different backgrounds who realize mental health affects everything," said Samantha Powell, a prevention specialist with Four Rivers Behavioral Health and one of about 30 members of the work group.

One of the work group's primary goals, Powell said, is to reduce the rate of suicide in the Purchase region by close to 20 percent by 2025. Those numbers are in line with the national Association for Suicide Prevention's goals.

Suicide prevention is crucial, Powell added, as the Four Rivers region has the highest suicide rate in the state, at 19.5 suicides per 100,000 people, according to 2016 data from the Kentucky Department of Vital Statistics. That region consists of the eight counties that make up the Purchase and Livingston County, and 2016 is the latest year for which region-specific data are available.

That rate is higher than both 2018's national rate, 13.9 per 100,000, and the state's rate of 17.1, according to an America's Health Rankings analysis of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.

"We speculate a few different things, but we don't know for sure why the rate is so high in our area. We wish we did. But we do know that rates are going down," Powell said.

Culture, the stigma around reaching out for help and the rural nature of many communities here may all contribute to the region's higher rate of suicides, Powell added.

Attendance at the annual Out of the Darkness Community Walk, aimed at honoring those whom suicide loss has affected and preventing suicide, indicates the issue resonates with many people in Paducah. Participation in the September event grew last year to more than 700 people, Powell said, prompting organizers to move the September event from Kentucky Oaks Mall to the Paducah Convention Center.

This year's walk is scheduled for 9 a.m. Sept. 21.

Most of the organizations involved in the work group have been involved in some aspect of mental health for years, but members hope they can have more of an impact. Powell said the work group is still seeking regional volunteers who are passionate about mental health issues. To find out more about the group or to attend one of its monthly meetings, contact Powell at spowell@4rbh.org.

"Everybody has a business in suicide prevention. That's something we preach. It's really just if you're willing to put in the work," she said.

In addition to participating in the walk and volunteering for the work group, people interested in helping with suicide reduction can educate themselves.

Mental health first aid classes are scheduled around the region this year, and the websites asfp.org and qprinstitute.org offer resources if you or someone you know may be feeling suicidal.

"Simply asking, 'Are you OK?' can reduce those feelings," Powell said. People can also help by "being mindful that people around us may be going through stuff ... and being comfortable having that conversation around mental health."

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