MOUNT VERNON — Knox County Coroner Dr. Jennifer Ogle said the suicide section of her preliminary annual report for 2009 will surprise and alarm many.
Knox County has averaged between two and six suicides per year over the past decade. Last year, she said, that number skyrocketed to 11.
“This is the highest we’ve had,” Ogle said.
The Knox County Health Department began formally tracking suicides in 1995 using the information available on death certificates.
Seven more deaths in the county last year were due to drug overdoses. In those cases, Ogle said, without a note or specific evidence of suicide, the deaths are usually ruled accidental.
“None of the overdoses was classified as a suicide,” Ogle said.
Ogle told the Knox County Suicide Prevention Coalition that most of the suicides in the county last year were hanging deaths or deaths caused by firearms.
At the last meeting of the coalition, Ogle, Knox County Sheriff David Barber, Mount Vernon Police Officer Matt Jones and Mike Cronin, Mount Vernon Fire Department emergency medical coordinator, shared some of their experiences dealing with the aftermath of suicides.
Lynn Agapi-Gilligan, executive director of Moundbuilders Guidance Center, told the group the troubling trend isn’t just a local one.
“The suicide rate in Ohio has grown significantly,” she said. “We are at a five-year high this year.”
Because national statistics are not yet available for the number of suicides last year, it is unknown if the suicide rate across the country, which has steadily dropped in recent years, will follow the same rising trend as local suicides.
The causes for such a trend are not yet documented, but the coalition members shared their thoughts on contributing factors.
The current economic downturn was mentioned by several as a possible contributing factor in the increased suicide rate in the county.
“Alcohol and drugs were involved in about half of the suicides here,” Ogle said.
“We definitely have seen increased alcohol use,” Cronin said of the medics who transport people to the hospital. “We see people making poor choices and feeling hopeless.”
“The common thread that I can find, is loss of hope,” Ogle said, noting that most of the suicidal individuals had recently experienced a loss, either of finances, employment or a relationship.
“They predominantly have some kind of mental health issue and have sought help at one time,” Ogle said. “But I don’t think they are now seeking that help.”
“If they had just given it one more day,” Ogle said. “A lot of time this is a snap decision — very impulsive.”
Jones said it can be difficult for police officers, even those with CIT training like himself who deal with people in crisis, to know when someone is contemplating suicide.
Cronin said he believes the CIT training many first responders received last year, and the growing cooperation between Moundbuilders and first responders, is benefiting those in crisis.
“The first responders have the training and are ready, we just need the people to call,” agreed Linda Camelo of the 2-1-1 crisis line.
Agapi-Gilligan said it is important to get the message to people in the community who are experiencing depression or suicidal thoughts that help is available, regardless of an individual’s financial situation.
“If somebody is in crisis or having an emergency, they need to come in,” she said. “Money is not an object; there is public money for that.”
Jones said calling 9-1-1 when someone threatens suicide is appropriate because it is a true emergency. He also said people need to be reassured they will not be in trouble for reaching out for help if they are considering hurting themselves.
“Don’t think you’re going to jail,” Jones said. “You are going to get help.”
“We will talk to them and help them,” Cronin agreed.
People in crisis experiencing suicidal feelings can call 2-1-1 or (800) 273-TALK for help as well.
“We’ve been working more closely in partnership and now contact Moundbuilders ourselves,” Cronin said.
He and Agapi-Gilligan said this is especially helpful when dealing with people who use the EMS system frequently for crisis treatment.
Agapi-Gilligan told the committee she would like to see Knox County formalize its suicide prevention coalition, which has met several times to discuss how to address the growing suicide problem in the county.
Coalition members welcomed the idea, which could also bring new training to the county for laypeople interested in reaching out to others in the community experiencing a mental health crisis.
Ogle said last week that two deaths in January will likely be ruled suicides, which she said shows the suicide rate is not decreasing.
The next scheduled meeting of the Knox County Suicide Prevention Coalition is Friday at 10 a.m. at the Knox County Health Department.