A spike in suicides | TheUnion.com

A spike in suicides

he number of suicides in Nevada County hit an all-time high last year and this year already is off to a sad start, according to public health and safety officials, who say the increase could stem from a depressed economy and other ongoing problems in the area.

A total of 24 Nevada County residents purposely took their own lives in 2007, according to statistics compiled by Nevada County Chief Deputy Coroner Cathy Valceschini.

The number of local suicides last year is higher than any other year since 1994, when the sheriff’s office began compiling computerized suicide records, The Union found. The second-highest occurrence was in 2000, when there were 22 suicides.

Deaths are deemed suicide in Nevada County only if it is clear the person meant to die ” illustrated by a suicide note, a gunshot to the head or the ingestion of an entire bottle of pills, for example ” Valceschini said.

If someone dies after taking a mix of prescription or recreational drugs, and authorities cannot be sure the death was intentional, the death is categorized as “undetermined” or “accidental,” she added.

On average, the number of suicides in Nevada County usually hovers around 16, according to statistics. (Like most newspapers, The Union generally does not report individual suicides out of privacy concerns, unless they involve a public figure or occur in a public place).

In addition to the 24 suicides last year, five suicides have occurred in Nevada County in the first two months of 2008, coroner’s records show.

“It’s pretty bizarre,” said Valceschini, who has worked for the sheriff’s office for 30 years and is president of the California State Coroners Association. “It could be economics.

The economy can play a part in suicides going up. It seems like with a lot of the folks, the reason is either financial or they think they can’t live without someone.”

An increasing number of patients seen by doctors and therapists at her clinic have expressed hopelessness about their financial situations within the past year or so, said Jennifer Sale, a licensed clinical social worker and behavioral health director at Sierra Family Medical Clinic on the San Juan Ridge.

Sale agreed with the theory that money woes might be influencing the local suicide rate.

“I sense it has a lot to do with financial issues,” Sale said. “My patients are expressing more and more despair they feel at not being able to provide for their families.”

Many of Sale’s patients said they are frustrated with the incongruence of high living expenses and low reimbursement rates from disability insurance, she said.

Patients on disability increasingly are unable to make ends meet, she said.

Financial straits and loss of loved ones to death or break-ups do influence people to take their own lives, while drug and alcohol abuse also play a major part in the occurrence of suicide locally, said Dr. Doug Crisp, Nevada County Behavioral Health Department medical director.

“A lot of people who commit suicide are on alcohol when they do it,” Crisp said. “Alcohol lowers inhibitions.”

Suicide rates also are higher with younger men than they are with middle-aged men and women, he said, because they abuse drugs more often than other demographics.

Though young men may be more prone to suicide than some, the highest rate of suicide occurs with men over the age of 65, including many with health problems, said Dr. Peter Van Houten, medical director at the Sierra Family Medical Clinic.

In addition, Nevada County’s designation as a rural area may also be a factor in the increasing suicides, Crisp said.

“Rural counties always have a higher suicide rate,” Crisp said. “There is a lot of stigma in more rural counties in getting help with mental health issues and not as many services available in rural counties.”

Van Houten agreed many people are hesitant to seek help for depression or other mental health issues, while pointing out the stigma’s absurdity:

“Would a person wandering around wheezing with pneumonia and a fever of 104 degrees have a problem getting help?” Van Houten said. “Mental health issues are comparable. It’s easier to treat if you catch it earlier.”

“The general perception is you should have control over your mind,” Crisp said.

“It’s too bad, because the brain’s an organ, just like your heart,” he said.

Crisp was involved in a publicized movement by the Nevada County Community Leadership Institute last year to create a local suicide task force to raise awareness about mental health issues, while the movement has since fizzled out.

“Everyone gets excited about it, then the excitement starts to wane, then disappear,” Crisp said.

“The effort needs to be more widespread. It takes a group of people and a strong leader, someone to keep sending out the troops and getting articles in the paper. If you don’t have a dynamic force to push, it’s not going to work,” Crisp said.

Crisp, Sale and Van Houten all say the best way to prevent suicide is for people facing mental health issues and their families to disregard the stigma, reach out and ask for help.

“One of the advantages of going to a medical clinic to see a psychiatrist or a therapist is it really reduces the stigma,” Van Houten said. “It can appear you’re just coming in to see the doctor.”

If a person is showing signs they are suicidal but are resistant to seeking help, family members can be instrumental in getting the help for them, Van Houten said.

“The first thing I would do is have an upcoming visit with the primary care provider and go to make sure these issues get voiced,” he said. “Remind your relative he needs to speak up. Be really proactive.”

“Don’t wait,” Sale said. “Help is out there.”

To contact staff writer Robyn Moormeister, e-mail rmoormeister@theunion.com or call 477-4236.

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