HUDSON–The topic of suicide became news last week with death of Copake dairy farmer Dean Pierson. Behind the news, the number of what experts call “completed suicides” in Columbia County dropped last year after a surprising spike in 2008, but state Health Department data show that the number of deaths in 2009 was still higher in the county than anticipated based on the county’s population and rural setting, and county agencies are continuing their effort to address the problem.
There were eight completed suicides in 2009, less than the 20 reported for all of 2008 but still slightly higher than would be expected. There were 27 completed suicides during the previous five years.
The surge in suicides in 2008 prompted county officials to form the Columbia County Suicide Prevention Taskforce, which secured funding from a research endowment to hire Dr. Eileen Franko as a part-time consultant to coordinate the effort. Taskforce members include county Coroners Angelo Nero and Dr. George Davis, Human Services Director Dr. Michael O’Leary, Public Health Director Nancy Winch, Mary Daggett of Columbia Memorial Hospital, suicide prevention expert Gary Spielmann, Paul Phillppe, RN of the county Health Department and dual recovery coordinator Bradley White.
Analysis of the data available on completed suicides has provided some insights into the problem. Half of the nearly 60 documented suicides in Columbia County since 2003 were completed using firearms. The next most common method is hanging (approximately 25%), with the remaining suicides completed by other means.
The completed suicides by gunshot, most by middle-aged white men, were committed with rifles and shotguns, not handguns as is often depicted in movies. In about half of the suicides with firearms, the weapon was owned by the deceased; the other half involved people who had access to another person’s weapons, usually a family member.
The taskforce attributes the prevalence of completed suicides by firearm to several factors, the first being the lethality of this method compared with other means–a person using a firearm is simply more likely to be successful in ending his life. The availability of firearms is another factor. Gun ownership in a rural county such as Columbia County is likely to be higher than in urban areas. In addition, persons who own firearms–white, middle-aged males–correspond to the group at relatively higher risk of committing suicide.
The taskforce is pursuing a prevention strategy that involves increased public awareness of suicide risk factors, increased screening for depression and suicide by health care providers and more concentrated awareness among people who own and use firearms, given the high rate of suicides by gunshot in Columbia County.
Donald LaValley, president of the Columbia County Sportmen’s Federation, cautioned the taskforce not to “demonize firearms,” describing sportsmen and hunters as the “safest demographics out there.” But he believes that members of the 30 clubs he represents will want to learn more about how they can help, such as learning to recognize suicide warning signs, and he has invited taskforce members to attend an upcoming Federation meeting.
He said that many club members either know someone or have loved ones who may be at risk, and he said he “cannot see why anybody wouldn’t be interested.”
Dr. Franco, a survivor of a suicide by a family member, called Columbia County “very proactive in this arena,” saying that it is important to gain the perspective of groups that are outside the traditional treatment community. In addition to the Sportmen’s Federation, the taskforce has already reached out to law enforcement officials, clergy and town clerks. She envisions that this process will continue in an ongoing effort to refine prevention efforts.
Although they have ploughed through much data, taskforce members say that there is much more to learn. According to Dr. O’Leary, the state data pertain to completed suicides, not attempts. How many suicides are attempted in any given time period is unknown as are the characteristics of the persons involved with them. In addition, there is the possibility that some deaths classified as accidents are actually the result of suicide.
In addition to reviewing state statistics, the taskforce reached out to adjacent rural counties and determined that they are not experiencing comparable rates of completed suicides. Looking at internal Department of Human Services data, it was also determined that most of the persons who committed suicide were not known to the mental health system.
The taskforce is looking for unique, innovative ways to approach suicide prevention and to identify factors they may have missed that can help predict that someone is a potential victim, said Dr. Franco, the taskforce consultant.
One way is gain a deeper understanding of the victims, according to Dr. O’Leary, a goal he hopes to accomplish by speaking with surviving family members and friends. Recognizing how sensitive a matter this is, Dr. O’Leary invites anyone interested in sharing their perspective to contact him at (518) 828-9446 or Dr. Franco at (518) 522-8337.
What are the signs?
THE AMERICAN FOUNDATION for Suicide Prevention, www.afsp.org, and the Columbia County Department of Human Services and Mental Health Center advise that most suicides give warning of their intentions, and nearly all have symptoms of depression, and the depression and emotional crises that so often precede suicides are, in most cases, both recognizable and treatable.
Here is what the foundation advises if you believe a person you know is contemplating suicide:
*Take it seriously. 75% of all suicides give some warning of their intentions to a friend or family member. All suicide threats and attempts must be taken seriously.
*Be willing to listen. Take the initiative to ask what is troubling the person and persist to overcome any reluctance to talk about it. Ask whether he or she is considering suicide. Ask if they have a particular plan or method in mind.
*Listen carefully, don’t argue. Let the person know you care and understand that he or she is not alone, that suicidal feelings are temporary, that depression can be treated and that problems can be solved. Avoid the temptation to say: “You have so much to live for,” or “Your suicide will hurt your family.”
*Seek professional help. Be actively involved in encouraging the person to see a physician or mental health professional immediately. Individuals contemplating suicide often don’t believe they can be helped, so you may have to do more. Be insistent, trust your feelings of concern.