Catholic Charities of Oklahoma City leader wins national award for suicide prevention program

October 22, 2018
Monica Palmer, senior director of clinical services for Catholic Charities of Oklahoma City, recently received a national award for developing a suicide prevention program currently being implemented throughout the Oklahoma City archdiocese. Palmer, 52, said she came up with the idea to take a more proactive approach to youth suicide. She said Catholic Charities regularly provides counseling at both private Christian schools and public schools in the aftermath of tragedies. When a spate of five youth suicides occurred about six years ago, she became determined to place more emphasis on suicide prevention. "We were doing the 'post-vention work' in our schools, but I said let's not wait for something to happen. Let's save some lives," Palmer said.
The Bishop Joseph M. Sullivan Award was presented to Palmer at Catholic Charities USA's Annual Gathering in September in St. Louis. It is presented annually to an individual from the Catholic Charities network that has made a significant contribution to the lives of children, through direct service, through program development and administration, or through social policy advancement and advocacy. Patrick Raglow, Catholic Charities' executive director, said he nominated Palmer for national recognition because she led the effort to create the suicide prevention program and came up with ways to expand it beyond the Catholic schools into other areas of the archdiocese. "She will readily tell you that it takes a team, but every team needs a leader," he said. Palmer said at the outset, she began researching what programs already were being implemented in the community-at-large. She said she found out that mental health agencies in the state offered QPR training, an acronym for Question, Persuade, Refer. Designed to help save lives, QPR is considered an emergency mental health gatekeeper training intervention that teaches lay and professional gatekeepers to recognize and respond positively to someone exhibiting suicide warning signs and behaviors.
She also found out about the Lifeline program, a suicide prevention program for school students that was being administered in some public schools. Palmer said she knew then that she needed to reach out to parochial schools within the archdiocese to begin incorporating the training and programming she found. "We decided we couldn't do it ourselves, we had to ask the schools to buy in," she said.
With her research complete, Palmer created what is called the Cabrini Wellness Ministry. The ministry is named after St. Francis Xavier Cabrini because Palmer wanted the focus to be on wellness. St. Francis Xavier Cabrini (1850-1917) was an Italian religious sister who is considered the patroness of hospital administrators and immigrants, among other things.
Eventually Palmer decided to take the ministry program beyond the schools and into Catholic parishes across the archdiocese, which encompasses two-thirds of the state. She said Archbishop Paul S. Coakley has embraced the ministry and seen fit to require that all Catholic Charities staff and Catholic Pastoral Center staff receive the training offered by the ministry. Palmer said the Cabrini Wellness Ministry includes QPR training not only for teachers in the parochial schools but also for other individuals throughout the archdiocese, including priests. To date, more than 2,000 people in the archdiocese have received the training. The program also includes a component of the Lifeline program for the parochial schools, plus Mental Health First-Aid training for adults and youths in the archdiocese.
"When we went to the parochial schools, no one wanted to say no to this. They had had the losses, and they were ready for this," she said. "They wanted to see every one of their kids show up every morning." Schools appreciate ministry Diane Floyd, the archdiocese's superintendent of schools, said she, too, embraced Palmer's ideas when the Catholic Charities leader approached school leaders. She said the archdiocese includes 22 parochial schools — 19 elementary schools, two high schools — Mount St. Mary and Bishop McGuinness — and the independent Catholic high school Cristo Rey.
She said elements of the Cabrini ministry were implemented throughout the schools, and they have become an integral part of the school culture.
"We were definitely on board. It just made sense," Floyd said. She said the level of youth suicide has minimized in the parochial schools since the Cabrini Ministry was implemented. Floyd said the ministry is conducted on different tiers throughout the schools. She said all teachers receive QPR training.
The superintendent said she has received much feedback over the years, and people have said that hardest part of conversation about suicide is asking someone if they are contemplating taking their own life. She said the QPR training, Lifeline and other elements of the Cabrini program have helped people realize that its OK to talk about the subject of suicide and doing so could change someone's life. "It's life saving," she said.