Economy drives suicide rate

Published 7:51 am Wednesday, July 15, 2009

FRANKLIN—The word “suicide” evokes an emotional reaction from many people. Some say that it’s a sin; others say that it’s selfish and so on. However, the reality is that suicide is a lot more common and preventable than many people realize.

In Virginia alone, there were 872 suicide deaths in 2007, two times the number of homicides in the commonwealth in 2007. For every suicide death, there are countless others who unsuccessfully attempt suicide.

The reasons that people commit suicide are often as diverse as the people are themselves, according to Christina Sloan, the youth suicide prevention manager for the Virginia Department of Health.

“There isn’t going to be any one reason,” she said. Most people who attempt suicide are suffering from depression, so the key is often figuring out what is causing the depression. People don’t usually just snap and commit suicide because of bad day; there is usually a cocktail of issues brewing over time, often involving money or relationship problems.

The current economic recession isn’t helping the suicide rate. A layoff or foreclosure, on top of other issues, can push some people to commit suicide. “The economy is definitely one of the factors,” Sloan said.

While women are more likely to attempt suicide, men are more likely to complete the act.

“That may have a lot to do with the means of suicide,” Sloan said. “Men are more likely to use firearms and women are more likely to use poison.”

Age is also an important factor in suicide. The elderly are at an increased risk because they often suffer from chronic illnesses, take multiple medications, which can alter their thought process, and are more likely to have lost a spouse. Bill Peterson, a policy analyst at the Virginia Department for the Aging, says that a perceived loss of independence can also push someone over the edge.

“You are talking about a generation that believes in personal independence and personal responsibility,” he said.

Peterson said that the burden of caring for a sick spouse “can lead to a tragic situation.”

On Thursday, Edward Lee Everett Sr., an elderly Boykins man, killed his wife, Queen Esther Everett, and then committed suicide. Family members said that he had expressed concern about not being able to care for her. Everett had become permanently blind and his wife was suffering from the final stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

The Department for the Aging works with 25 local Area Agencies on Aging to provide a variety of services to the elderly. Peterson wasn’t aware of any specific suicide prevention programs for the elderly, but he said that the Area Agencies on Aging have mental health resources and support groups.

In Virginia, and across the United States, rural areas lead cities and suburbs in terms of suicide rates. Sloan said that it is probably due to a relative lack of mental health resources in rural areas and socioeconomic factors.

The Western Tidewater Community Services Board is a publicly funded system of services for mental health, intellectual disability and substance abuse. It serves residents in the cities of Franklin and Suffolk and Southampton and Isle of Wight counties.

Jarvis Howell, the site supervisor for the WTCSB’s Franklin Mental Health Center, said that he has seen the demand for the organization’s suicide-prevention services rise over the past 10 years.

Howell said that most of the suicidal people whom he encounters are usually experiencing some type of financial or relationship turmoil.

“I had a man in here recently, he was distraught he had just lost his job, he was about to lose his car, his relationships were falling apart,” he said.

Howell said that the WTCSB has an emergency services office that is based in Suffolk. If someone comes in to the Franklin office with suicide ideations or even a detailed plan, a counselor can be sent over from the Suffolk office.

If someone reaches a level where they are non-responsive to counseling, an emergency custody order can be issued, which would allow the police to pick up the suicidal person and take him to a mental health facility.

The WTCSB charges for services on a scale depending upon the patient’s income. Compared to the value of a life, the cost is “negligible,” according to Howell. While resources exist, many people are simply too embarrassed to seek out help.

“There is a stigma when it comes to mental health,” Sloan said. “People are afraid of how other people are going to perceive them.”

Howell had this to say to anyone having suicidal thoughts. “You are not alone, there are a lot of people who have these thoughts and feelings. The main thing is to ask for help.”

According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control, someone committed suicide every 16 minutes in the United States in 2005. Suicide is the 11th leading cause of death among people of all ages and the third leading cause among people between the ages of 10 and 24, despite the 24-hour hotlines and crisis services available.

Friends or family members are often the first defense against suicide. Sloan said that people should familiarize themselves with the signs of trouble.

“It’s really knowing what the warning signs are and not being afraid to ask if they’re having suicidal thoughts,” Sloan said. “It’s OK to ask someone and not be judgmental.”