Janesville25.4°

Suicide crisis centers report increase in calls. Is the economy to blame?

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Sara Jerving
February 21, 2010

Raymond Eiden learned April 28, 2008, that Janesville’s General Motors was eliminating the night shift he had worked for 27 years.


That same day, he took his own life.


“After he heard the news about General Motors, he probably had an overwhelming flood of emotions and couldn’t think beyond that moment,” daughter Vickie Eiden said.


The elimination of the assembly plant’s night shift was followed by news the entire plant would close. Ultimately, about 2,800 people lost their jobs.


Eiden was among 737 Wisconsin residents who took their lives in 2008, when suicides hit the highest level in at least 20 years.


Interviews with mental health experts and an analysis of Wisconsin suicide data by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism found:


-- A total of 6,513 people took their lives in the 10 years from 1999 through 2008.


-- The state’s suicide rate continues to rise, exceeds those of neighboring states and has remained higher than the national rate for about a decade.


-- Suicide crisis centers in Wisconsin and across the nation report an increase in calls since the recession began.


-- Stigma over discussing suicidal thoughts, lack of access to mental health care and insufficient funding continue to serve as barriers to suicide prevention. Experts say Wisconsin’s high suicide rate, relative to those of neighboring states, could be linked to a high rate of binge drinking, easy access to firearms and lack of available mental health care, especially in rural areas.


Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in Wisconsin, behind influenza and pneumonia and surpassing deaths from breast and prostate cancer as well as motor vehicle accidents, according to state Department of Health Services data. Figures for 2009 aren’t yet available.


Calls for help

Some suicide crisis center hotlines across the state have reported an increase in calls since the economy began to deteriorate. While it’s hard to pinpoint why these increases have occurred, officials speculate they could correlate with rising unemployment rates that contribute to losses of health insurance, financial security, a person’s daily routine and a community of colleagues that workers rely on for companionship and support.


“We are very concerned about what the suicide rates for 2009 are going to look like,” said Shel Gross, director of public policy for Mental Health America of Wisconsin, a nonprofit outreach program. “Looking at some of the preliminary data, we think there will be increases in Wisconsin that will probably be more directly attributed to the economic situation—people losing jobs and homes and the effect that has on people.”


Wisconsin’s suicide rate has been higher than the national average since 1998 and has continued to rise, while the national rate has remained relatively consistent.


Wisconsin’s rate rose slightly in both 2007 and 2008 to just about 13 deaths per 100,000. Nationally, about 11 people per 100,000 take their lives each year, according to 2006 data, the most recent available, with higher rates in the Western states.


Suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15- to 24-year-olds in Wisconsin. Men are more than three times as likely as women to kill themselves.


The loss of a job can be a trigger for someone already suffering from mental issues and other losses, said Patricia Derer, co-founder of Helping Others Prevent and Educate about Suicide (HOPES), an education and advocacy organization based in Madison. Derer lost her own son to suicide.


In Rock County, where the jobless rate was the state’s second-highest for much of the year, the Human Services Department in 2009 saw a nearly 20 percent increase in suicide crisis contacts such as phone calls and police interventions. Crisis intervention supervisor Brad Munger is concerned the suicide rate for 2009 may be the worst Rock County has seen in more than a decade.


Racine County officials report a similarly disturbing pattern. One crisis line noticed a spike in suicide crisis calls in March and April of 2009, after layoffs and closings at Pioneer Products, Circuit City, Racine Residential Care Hoplite and elsewhere.


The crisis line at Milwaukee County’s Behavioral Health Division also experienced a 15 percent increase in calls from 2008 to 2009. Similarly, the Outagamie County Crisis Center, which includes the city of Appleton, saw an increase in suicide crisis calls during 2009.


“A lot of the calls we get are about finances and loss of jobs,” Outagamie crisis phone supervisor Lisa Anderson said. “Some of the suicide attempts have been due directly to loss of jobs and not being able to maintain a certain lifestyle.”


An increase in calls to crisis centers does not necessarily mean that the suicide rate will rise; it could just mean that more people are seeking help, American Association of Suicidology Executive Director Lanny Berman said.


‘Too much stigma’

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, 90 percent of people who die by suicide have treatable mental illnesses such as depression or substance abuse disorder. These are often undiagnosed or untreated.


Vickie Eiden said her father may have suffered from bipolar disorder but never sought treatment because he thought he could handle problems on his own.


The suicide of the 60-year-old came as to a shock to family, friends and co-workers—some of whom recalled sharing jokes and laughs with him at his nephew’s birthday party the day before.


Eiden’s family began attending Survivors of Suicide (SOS) support group meetings in Madison two weeks after his death.


“It helped us to make some sense of a tragedy we never imagined would occur within our family, to understand a little more about something that seemed incomprehensible and to find some comfort and peace through learning and sharing with a community of others who have also experienced the complex grief associated with suicide,” his daughter said.


“Too many people are isolated, embarrassed and afraid; there is just too much stigma around suicide.”


The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with its partners—Wisconsin Public Television, Wisconsin Public Radio and the UW-Madison School of Journalism & Mass Communication—and other news media.

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