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Many reasons for suicide
Some — but not all — are tied to the economy
Monday, April 16, 2012
By PAUL COLLINS - Bulletin Staff Writer
(Editor’s note: This is the second part in a series of articles on the area’s high rates of suicides in recent years.)
The Henry County and Martinsville area’s high rates of suicide often are tied to the economy, but that is not the only cause, officials say.
Several local and state officials speculated or said they believe the area’s poor economy, high unemployment rate, relatively low income, high poverty level, low educational attainment level, high substance abuse, higher situational depression, higher retirement-age population and isolation or loneliness from living in the country are among the factors contributing to suicide.
Many of those factors cause or contribute to feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, several officials said.
According to the Virginia Department of Health’s website, there were 16 suicides in Henry County in 2010, the latest year for which figures are available. There were two in Martinsville and six in Patrick County that year.
Henry and Patrick counties ranked 14th and 15th, respectively, in suicide rates among more than 130 counties and cities in Virginia in 2010.
Dr. Gordon Green, director of the West Piedmont Health District, said factors contributing to suicide may include financial loss and worries that you’re not doing well financially, job loss, fear of not being rehired and feelings of hopelessness.
Green said he thinks higher poverty levels, lower income levels, lower levels of educational attainment, higher unemployment rates and feelings of hopelessness and helplessness are all factors in the area’s high suicide rates.
For instance, U.S. Census Bureau figures show that in recent years, the area’s per capita income was well below the state average and its poverty level exceeded the state figure. The area also lags in percentages of high school graduates and residents with bachelor’s degrees or higher, and its unemployment rate generally has exceeded the state’s figure.
Jim Tobin, executive director of Piedmont Community Services, called the area’s suicide statistics sad and troubling, and said he can’t explain them. “I don’t think I know; this is a curiosity.”
He speculates there’s not a single reason for the high suicide rates but multiple factors that increase the risk not only for suicide but also lead to “a lot of poor outcomes.”
He thinks this area’s rates of mental illness, including clinical depression, are in line with other parts of the state, when controlled for demographics.
But “situational depression,” which is shorter term than clinical depression, probably is higher here, he said. Situational depression may result from such things as job loss or family disruptions, he explained.
Tobin said he senses that this area has a high substance abuse rate. He speculates that is a connected to long-term unemployment, reduced job prospects and other resulting tensions.
Job loss/financial problems can lead to family problems such as separation or divorce, as well as lack of or inadequate health care, according to Tobin and others.
The more connected people are to one another and the community, the less risk there is of suicide and a number of other problems, Tobin said.
Christy Letsom, chair of the Virginia Suicide Prevention Council, said lack of jobs, resulting in lack of health insurance for workers and their families, may be among the factors in this area’s high suicide rate.
Also people who live in the country, in “wide open spaces” may have increased feelings of loneliness and less access to services. If a person overdoses or harms himself in some other way, getting rescue quickly is critical, she said. If, say, it takes a half-hour for an emergency response team to reach the home, there is a greater chance the person may die, Letsom said.
Shirley Jamison, emergency services supervisor for Piedmont Community Services, said she believes there is a higher suicide risk among men after retirement, roughly 60 to 80 years old; among teenagers 14-16; and among recovering substance abusers who relapse.
Jamison said she believes generally men are more defined by their jobs, and when they no longer are associated with a job or work and have nothing to replace it, depression tends to set in.
Also, generally men do not verbalize their feelings as much as women, so their feelings may be harder to detect. “If someone in that age group (men after retirement) threatens suicide, we take it extremely seriously,” she said.
Henry, Patrick and Franklin counties and the city of Martinsville all exceeded the state average for percent of people 65 and older in 2010, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
Teens 14-16 are dealing with a lot of changes in their bodies, becoming more independent and needing to be accepted by peers, Jamison said.
She said she believes people tend to feel more helpless and hopeless as a result of a poor economy and losing jobs, income, health care and status in their own eyes and the eyes of their families and community.
“We have had a very poor economy for a long time,” she said.
“Some people have the capacity to move on (after losing a job) and reinvent themselves; some don’t. Some people are predisposed to depression ... ,” she said.
Adding one stresser on top of another tends to make people get worse, Jamison said.
(NEXT: The state of Virginia recently conducted special training for agencies in areas with large numbers of suicides.)