CAIRO, Ga. — More than half a dozen mental health professionals and other members of the community gathered inside Roddenbery Memorial Library Tuesday afternoon to plan the next phase of a county-wide suicide prevention project.

Dustin Infinger, project lead with Start Teaching Early Prevention (STEP) Up Grady County, said the meeting provided the opportunity to review data collected from the project's first phase and determine how to address the unique risk factors present in Grady County using evidence-based suicide prevention strategies to be implemented next month.

"I think we've got a really strong group here," Infinger said. "I think we're blessed to have a community with so many people that want to work together and do something with this issue."

Data from the state Department of Public Health found that Grady County has a statistically high suicide rate, ranking sixth out of the 88 counties that had at least 15 deaths by suicide in the five-year period beginning in 2012.

White middle-aged men in the county are at a particularly high risk, representing a disproportionately high percentage of suicides. In the past two years of available data in 2016 and 2017, Grady County had a higher rate of suicide among "working-age" white males than any other county in the state, according to DPH.

While women are generally more likely to attempt suicide, men are more likely to actually die of suicide, in part because of their tendency to use more lethal methods such as firearms.

Between 2012 and 2016, 72 percent of suicides in Grady County involved the use of a firearm.

Additionally, men in the American South face unique cultural stigmas which may dissuade them from seeking the help experts say they need in order to overcome their depressive states or mental illnesses.

"There's very much a culture of 'I'm the man of the house, I'm supposed to be able to deal with this stuff,'" Infinger said.

"That becomes crushing," he continued. "You collapse like a giant star at some point. You can't do that. You can't live that way."

Though older men present a unique challenge for Grady County, they aren't the only demographic STEP Up is attempting to dissuade from suicide.

Kendra Butler of Benchmark Human Services said she was concerned about self-harm being so non-taboo among youth, primarily young girls, that in some ways it is becoming glorified.

"There is no stigma amongst the kids about it," Butler said. "It's cool to brag 'I scratched myself and I was trying to kill myself and I went to Greenleaf for a week.' It has been turned into something that's soap-opera cool."

STEP Up was created with the help of a state grant and recently completed its first phase in which it compiled data through a needs assessment.

The group is aiming to eventually reach every corner of the community, including Spanish-speaking residents and members of the Lower Muskogee Creek Tribe near Whigham.

Infinger said STEP Up now has 10 members, and the group is looking to continue growing.

"This coalition is a forest now, and it's going to live beyond this project and this grant," Infinger said. "Although I was kind of the seed that got it started, you all are just as important to it as I am, and I really want to bulk up our structure and our leadership and make sure this is sustainable."

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