Suicide watch: Cape Girardeau County numbers up for 2011

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

It was a Friday, two days after Christmas.

Debi Oliver heard the noise. It sounded like a shotgun.

She called down the open stairwell to her daughter. What was it? Wasn't me, the teen answered.

Oliver walked into the room of her 16-year-old son, Daric -- seconds after he shot himself.

"My whole world changed in a split second," she said. "Nothing is ever the same. You can't go back to the way it was minutes before."

When Oliver counsels suicide survivors she literally can feel their pain. The registered nurse, licensed counselor and detective on the Cape Girardeau Police Department was helping people in their journeys through trauma and grief long before that deadly late December in 1991 brought crisis into her home.

Nearly 20 years later, Oliver says she has come a long way in dealing with the violent loss of her son. So has society.

Daric was a junior at Cape Girardeau Central High School. He was very active, very popular, his mother said. Still, he struggled with depression, and was in counseling at the time of his death. He confided in friends about taking his life, wrote school papers about suicide. But teachers and administrators, Oliver said, were told the topic of suicide was taboo.

"I was angry, very angry," she said. "Several teachers who are now retired were also very angry. They took it upon themselves from that day forward to talk to students about suicide."

"This is not a secret we keep."

While the stigma of suicide is not what it used to be, it remains. While prevention and intervention programs have evolved, experts say, suicide deaths nationally spiked in 2007, the latest data available. Locally, suicide numbers are up, too, particularly of late, an increase that has counselors and Cape Girardeau County's coroner scratching their heads.

Fatal figures

Reported suicide deaths in the U.S. climbed to 34,598 in 2007, at 11.5 per 100,000. That's the highest recorded level since 1995. Preliminary data show suicides could top 35,000 in 2008, according to Lanny Berman, executive director of the American Association of Suicidology, a Washington, D.C.-based membership organization for those involved in suicide prevention and intervention.

The latest statistics, according to the Missouri Suicide Prevention Plan 2005-2010, show Missouri's suicide rate at 12.9 per 100,000, the highest level in Region VII -- which includes Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, and Nebraska. In 2007, 808 people killed themselves in Missouri, far exceeding the annual average of 707 suicide deaths.

In Cape Girardeau County, there have been 14 confirmed suicide deaths this year, through Tuesday, outpacing the 19 recorded self-inflicted deaths recorded last year, according to Cape Girardeau County Coroner John Clifton.

The numbers spiked in May, with five reported suicides. Clifton doesn't know what's driving the higher numbers this year.

"We've talked about it. We really noticed it in May when we had those five," the coroner said. "We have had a tremendous amount of people being taken to hospitals for overdoses that survive. These are not illegal drugs, these are prescription drugs.

"Suicide through overdose is really getting to be a serious problem."

So far this year, three of the 14 suicide deaths involved overdoses, according to the coroner's report. Firearms continue to be the lethal choice, accounting for eight of 14 suicide deaths. Nationally in 2007, 17,352 ended their lives through self-inflicted gunshot wounds, or about half of all suicide deaths.

There were five reported suicides in May last year in Cape Girardeau County, each by gun or overdose, Clifton said. There are rarely any connected causes or circumstances, experts say. In December 2010, three 34-year-olds in Cape Girardeau County died as a result of overdose, but there appears to be no connection.

The figures have held fairly steady in Cape Girardeau in recent years. This year to date, there has been one reported suicide in the city, with six reported attempts, according to Cape Girardeau police spokesman Darin Hickey. There were two suicides in 2010, and 19 reported attempts, three suicides and 19 attempts in 2009, and four suicides and 50 reported attempts in 2008.

Suicide is the 11th leading cause of death in Missouri, according to the latest data, and it often is considered to be the third leading cause of death among people ages 15 to 24 -- although there is some dispute about the statistic.

Risk factors

Hickey has seen suicides in his 12 years on the force, too many, he says.

He recalls a middle-aged man, distraught, under the influence of alcohol and drugs, with a shotgun. The man walked outside the house where his wife and three children were, went into the garage, put the gun to his chest and fired. Hickey watched it all.

In this case, there were some answers to what drove the man to such an act, Hickey said. The guy had just lost his job, he was going through financial problems, he was drinking. As Hickey put it, there were probably 20 things piled up on top of this guy and he felt suicide was the only way out. It was an impulsive act, Hickey said. There weren't any previous reports or threats of self-harm.

Even when there's a letter, some message, some word, to explain, people never really get to the why, mental health officials say. And the scars left on the people forced to live in suicide's shadow may fade, but they never go away.

"There is no single cause; there are a whole number of risk factors, as we call them," said Berman of the American Association of Suicidology.

There are some 50 long-term risk factors, and 25 acuteness factors, or short-term risks, and they apply across all ages.

"We know from research that a great proportion of young people suicide deaths are associated with mental disorders, oftentimes undiagnosed or untreated," Berman said. "There is more impulsivity and aggression among young people." Particularly young men. In general, men account for 78 percent of suicides.

Troubled economies, particularly high unemployment, is believed to raise suicide rates, rising with corresponding increases in jobless rates. The Great Recession, spanning much of 2008 and 2009, and the lingering "jobless recovery" could be a driver for higher suicide numbers.

While Hickey has seen the tragic side of the story, he's also seen the strength of the survivor. He recalls a young man, 18, who was poised to jump off a bridge. The teen had just lost his job, and found out his girlfriend was pregnant. He kept saying nothing good ever happened to him.

Hickey talked him down.

Today, years later, the officer said that young man has his life on track.

Oliver, too, has been where Hickey has. A mid-1990s front page story in the Southeast Missourian includes a photo of Oliver talking a distraught man off the old bridge spanning Cape Girardeau and East Cape Girardeau. Through Wildwood, her grief, trauma and crises counseling private practice and her role as director of the Southeast Missouri branch of the support group Survivors of Suicide, Oliver sees several people each year affected by suicide.

She has walked in their shoes.

"I think about him every day. Twenty years has not changed that he's still my son," Oliver said of Daric. "There is a hole in my heart that will never close. But I had two choices: Survive it or join him."

Surviving, Oliver said, is not about forgetting or burying the suicide. It's about living with it daily, through reassurance and hope that survival is possible. To survive, she said, is often a matter of one moment at a time.

"The only way I can suggest an individual get through it is to reach out for support, to seek professional help if they want it or need it, and not to go through it alone," she said. "They need to be reassured they will survive."

mkittle@semissourian.com

388-3627

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