A significant jump in the number of suicides nationally over the last decade – particularly among baby boomers – has raised a red flag among mental health professionals.
But in Erie County, the number has dropped in recent years, from a high of 99 in 2010 to 75 last year.
These numbers come into focus as area mental health professionals and families of people who have taken their own lives strive today to create awareness of suicide and its prevention.
“I often say that suicide is a permanent solution to what often is a temporary problem,” said Sharon Mitchell, director of counseling services at the University at Buffalo. “So what you want to do is intervene and let people see there are alternatives.”
And to point out that there are alternatives, as well as to create awareness, hundreds of people will participate today in a charity walk around Delaware Park in memory of their loved ones. “Out of the Darkness,” sponsored by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, is expected to raise $100,000 for programs on suicide prevention.
Nationally, suicides for men ages 50 to 59 jumped 50 percent in the last decade, according to a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The largest increase among women was in ages 60 to 64, where the rate jumped 60 percent.
Why this increase?
“This generation’s men are not feeling as successful as the previous generation,” explained Douglas Fabian, director of Crisis Services Erie County, and a member of the county Suicide Prevention Coalition.
“Economically, they are not as successful,” he added. “Their family is not doing as well as their families did when they were younger. They are losing jobs. Corporations are closing. I think there’s a feeling of not having met expectations.” In Erie County suicide statistics reported by the Medical Examiner’s Office for the year 2010 indicate: 27 of the 99 suicides committed that year involved people ages 50 to 59.
The message that Fabian and other health professionals want to get out is that when people are thinking about suicide, there are other solutions to their problems.
“If you can talk to them and meet with them, you can point out options they might not know about,” said Timothy Deeks, supervisor of clinical services for the Niagara County Department of Mental Health. “Now all of a sudden they have hope. They see a glimmer, and there is a way out.”
His office has a call center that handles approximately 20,000 calls each year.
But recognizing that someone is despondent or contemplating suicide may be difficult. And that is what today’s awareness walk is about.
Tanya Hinton and Chris Carier, who are divorced, said they had no idea their son Jake was contemplating suicide. And they said they will never completely recover from his suicide in August 2012, when he hanged himself in his father’s barn in Wolcottsville, three months after turning 18.
“He never seemed depressed,” Hinton said. “The day before he was making plans to come over for dinner.”
They said their son was a happy-go-lucky outdoorsman who loved his white 1989 Camaro and his dog. He was good at saving the money he earned sealing driveways and doing odd jobs like cleaning gutters for his grandfather in Alden. He purchased his car at age 14, and he would not leave the house without his white Oakley sunglasses. Jake was cremated with them on, said his father.
Now they worry about their younger son, Jordan, who discovered Jake’s body in the same barn they had played in for many years.
Hinton, Carier and hundreds of others will participate in the charity walk around Delaware Park beginning at 10:30 a.m. today in memory of their loved ones.
Suicide rates fluctuate from year to year.
In Erie County, 59 suicides were recorded in 2006 compared with 99 in 2010 and then 75 last year. During the first six months of this year, 34 suicides were recorded.
That fluctuation may be explained by an evolving economy, said Jessica Pirro, associate director of Erie County Crisis Services.
“They have economic impacts of life in general,” Pirro said. “Societal factors tend to impact people who have a mental illness. We’ve also seen situations involving terminal illness. There are so many stories behind the numbers.”
Nationally, suicide among young people also is rising. The suicide rate among teens has climbed in the past few years from 6.3 percent in 2009 to 7.8 percent in 2011. In addition, nearly one in six high school students has seriously considered suicide, and one in 12 has attempted it, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2012.
Fabian said he has seen the number of suicides rise among college-age individuals. He cited two reasons:
“Mental health issues that develop as teens aren’t addressed successfully or maybe not addressed at all, and they get carried into adulthood,” Fabian said. “And young people who find themselves on their own either in a college setting or living away from the family may not have the coping skills, and their mental health problems have matured.”
Mitchell, the UB director of counseling services, said friends and families should say something if they notice despondent or peculiar behavior.
“Be very specific about what it is you are seeing,” she said. “Let people know that their odd behavior is being noticed. A lot of times, people feel invisible. They don’t think people notice they are in pain.”
Deeks, of Niagara County, conceded that while a suicide may occur out of the blue, in reality the person may have been planning it for a while.
“They decide today is the day. They tell nobody. They show no signs, and they do it. People around them say they were happy,” Deeks said. “Sometimes you never know, but something caused a hopeless feeling that they felt there was no way out. It could be: loss of housing; loss of a significant relationship, especially for teenagers; natural deaths of family members; job loss; crimes committed.”