McFarland resident Jean Papalia was named a Hometown Hero during the Nov. 2 meeting of the state Assembly. She was nominated by Rep. Jimmy Anderson, who serves the states 47th District that includes the village.
“I want to recognize her extraordinary leadership in addressing mental illness and suicide prevention,” Anderson said. “Mental illness is often overlooked, and it takes a very special person to be the shining light for those who have been stuck in the dark for so long.”
Papalia, who retired from the Madison Police Department in 2012, served as the department’s mental health liaison for roughly six years; during the same period, she was also the neighborhood office for Williamson Street. Anderson said as a former police officer, Papalia was a witness to suicide by gun violence far too often.
“Because of her big heart and understanding, she is able to help them find common ground and move forward on the issue of gun safety,” Anderson said. “She has helped so many people. She really is the best of the best.”
As the McFarland resident took the podium to address the Assembly, she noted much of the work she has done stays within Dane County. Because of this, Papalia said the hometown aspect of the award is especially meaningful.
“I was so honored (to be the recipient of the award),” she said. “I was thrilled; it was totally unexpected.”
Prior to 2012, police departments didn’t have a full-time mental health liaison officer, so it was assigned to one of the patrol or neighborhood officers.
“It was so easy on Willie Street, because so many of the mental health providers and caretakers were there, plus the neighborhood is so incredibly supportive – they always want to have people who need help in their neighborhood, unlike most neighborhoods,” Papalia said.
Furthermore, to combat suicide Papalia has been a Safe Communities certified QPR trainer since 2008. She teaches a free suicide prevention class open to the public where people can learn the warning signs for suicide, how to offer hope and how to seek help. QPR is an acronym for question, persuade and refer; it is often referred to as CPR for suicide prevention, Papalia said.
“The police department was always very kind and gave me time to do training,” she said.
In Anderson’s Hometown Hero nomination letter, he wrote: “Jean has been a pioneer in forging meaningful partnerships between law enforcement, mental health providers, and our community.”
He specifically mentioned Papalia’s work with Safe Communities as the coordinator for the Gun Shop Project.
Papalia explained the program, which is modeled on a project piloted by New Hampshire. Safe Communities provides Dane County gun stores with information on how they can help prevent suicides by firearms.
“People come into gun stores and ask to buy a gun, no cleaning kit and a bullet,” she said. “It has to stop.”
The gun shops are provided information on the signs of a suicidal individual looking to purchase a firearm, including no previous knowledge of guns, not caring what type of gun they purchase or appearing distraught.
Another aspect Papilia presented as part of the program was recruiting a couple of Dane County gun shops to agree to store firearms of people who may be undergoing a mental health crisis and need to store their guns away from their homes for a limited period of time.
“We know that the presence of a gun in and around someone who’s briefly in a suicidal crisis greatly increases the chances that they’ll die by suicide because the gun is so lethal,” she said.
The McFarland resident compared it to drunk driving – when someone’s had too much to drink, you take away their keys. When someone is having a suicidal crisis, you take away a means of dying by suicide.
Papalia has found people are more comfortable having their firearms stored at a gun store while getting the opportunity to seek treatment.
“And you’ll get it back when you’re feeling better,” she said.