Making La Porte County a healthier place

Photo by Ted YoakumJennifer Olson, executive director of Healthy Communities of La Porte County, explains some of the significant public health issues facing the area during her presentation on Monday to the Rotary Club of La Porte.

La PORTE — Looking at the numbers, the outlook of health and wellness in La Porte County appears quite grim. 

According to statistics from the national County Health Rankings & Roadmaps program, La Porte County ranks 73 out of 92 Indiana counties when it comes to overall health, measured by figures like average life expectancy and quality of life. 

When it comes to factors that contribute to healthy living, the picture gets even starker — the county ranks at just 82nd. In terms of unhealthy behaviors — such as drug use, obesity and physical inactivity — La Porte County is dead last.

Though they have a long road ahead of them, members of Healthy Communities of La Porte County are determined to do their part to combat two issues contributing to these high numbers — suicide and smoking. 

The organization's executive director, Jennifer Olson, shared more about the ways the nonprofit is supporting area residents during her presentation to the Rotary Club of La Porte on Monday. Olson served as the guest speaker of the club's weekly meeting at the Blue Heron Inn, where she talked about Healthy Communities' suicide prevention and tobacco cessation programs, among other topics.

The group is one of three Healthy Communities organizations still operation in Indiana, with most others forced to close their doors due to lack of funding following the 2008 economic recession, Olson said. The La Porte County organization differs significantly compared to other Healthy Communities programs — in part due to its focus on suicide prevention, the executive director said.

Suicide is a problem that plagues the entire country, with 50,000 Americans take their own lives every year — nearly 80% of whom are men. Drug and alcohol abuse compound the problem, as most victims have a substance in their system at the time of death, Olson said.

"When you're talking about a person with a mental illness or with a diagnosis of depression, when you add alcohol to that mix — especially with a firearm — it is extremely deadly," she said.

It's a massive issue in La Porte County as well, as, in 2018, more residents died from suicide than from drug overdoses, Olson said.

Suicide prevention is near and dear to Olson's heart, as her family has been impacted by it as well, she said. Her experiences, combined with the statistics, prompted her to launch Healthy Communities' prevention program several years ago, she said.

In March 2018, the organization hosted its first Question, Persuade and Refer Training session, a national, evidence-based suicide prevention program that helps participants identify those at risk of committing suicide and how to persuade them to get help.

Since then, Olson has conducted 37 other QPR sessions in the county, training more than 750 people to become "Gatekeepers," she said. The director has also led five suicide prevention programs at La Porte High School.

Next year, Olson hopes to expand Healthy Communities' outreach efforts, including creating a local response team that would support family members who just lost a loved one to suicide. She would also like to create a youth focus group that would help Healthy Communities' prevention efforts better connect with local teenagers.

Smoking is another local health issue Olson and her team are working to solve.

In La Porte County, nearly 30% of residents smoke, with almost 200 people each dying from tobacco-related complications and another 23 from second-hand smoke exposure, Olson said.

Youth abuse of vaping has added to these issues, with three teenagers in the U.S. dying after using these products since September, the director said. Vape pens and other devices are appealing to children due to the different flavors users can buy for them.

"So many young people start vaping and have no idea there's nicotine in it — they think it's flavored water," Olson said. "Then they're addicted to nicotine, and they can't quit."

To combat smoking, Healthy Communities uses the same tried-and-true tactics health organizations have employed for decades — promoting smoke-free environments, higher tobacco costs and hard-hitting media campaigns that show the effects of smoking. The program also provides training and support for those trying to kick the habit, Olson said.

While the numbers paint a bleak picture, the director has seen firsthand the impact Healthy Communities' efforts have made in making La Porte County a healthier place, she said. 

She talked with women who have tried to quit smoking for years finally succeed due to the organization's support. She's heard from mothers who, after going through a QPR training, finally feel comfortable leaving their children with suicidal thoughts at home by themselves.

She also takes comfort in seeing teenagers pick up and read her organization's brochures on self-harm and cutting, knowing that her team may have prevented more tragedies.

"If I've done nothing else, that's worth it," Olson said.

Those interested in learning more about Healthy Communities of La Porte County can call (219) 210-3499 or visit healthycommunitieslpc.org.

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