What’s behind Clark, Champaign counties’ rising suicide rates?

Tim Price. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

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Tim Price. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Suicide deaths have increased steadily across Ohio in recent years, and Clark County ranks among the highest in the state while Champaign County has one of the lowest rates, according to preliminary Ohio Department of Health data.

The stats were collected between 2011 and 2020, so some health officials fear that the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced people into isolation, compounded the problem. Still, Clark and Champaign counties health officials have programs in place that are aimed at reducing the number of suicides.

“Over the last couple of years, unfortunately, (the suicide rate) has gone up,” said Charles Patterson, Clark County health commissioner. “One of the additional negative things that COVID has highlighted for us is our mental health struggles here in Clark County.”

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Clark County Health Commissioner Charles Patterson stands at the entrance to the Clark County Combined Health District building. Staff photo by Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

Clark County Health Commissioner Charles Patterson stands at the entrance to the Clark County Combined Health District building. Staff photo by Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

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Clark County Health Commissioner Charles Patterson stands at the entrance to the Clark County Combined Health District building. Staff photo by Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

Suicide among youth has also been on the rise statewide in the past decade, although there’s been a slight decline since peaking at 276 in 2018.

Nationally, the suicide rate was 13.5 per 100,000 people in 2020. In comparison, the rate was 13.8 per 100,000 people in Ohio.

Clark County’s age-adjusted rate of suicide deaths was 20.1 per 100,000 people from 2016 to 2020, the data shows. Champaign County’s rate was 18.1 per 100,000 people; Montgomery County, 15.3; Madison County, 15.8; Logan County; 19.5; Miami County, 13.9; and Greene County, 12.5, according to ODH.

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Graphic by Mark Freistedt.

Graphic by Mark Freistedt.

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Graphic by Mark Freistedt.

Clark County used to witness on average of 18 suicide deaths per year, but in the last few years, the county has seen a small increase, according to the Clark County Combined Health District.

The pandemic shed light on mental health in Clark County. A total of 28 people died by suicide in 2021, according to the health district. The year before, 24 people in Clark County died by suicide.

Champaign County rests in the middle range in terms of suicide rate statewide, but locally, residents have seen a slight increase in people dying by suicide over the past few years.

A total of 4 people died by suicide in Champaign County in 2021, and so far this year, a total of three people have died by suicide, according to preliminary data provided by the Champaign County Health District.

“Those numbers are trending in a direction we’re not comfortable with,” said Champaign County health commissioner Gabe Jones.

Although the majority of suicide deaths that occurred in Clark and Champaign counties last year and the year before occurred among adults older than 30, the state saw an increase in suicide deaths among people aged 10-24.

Sandy Miller, the medical reserve corps coordinator and representative on Clark County’s suicide prevention coalition, said that out of the 28 people who died by suicide in 2021, two were under the age of 18.

Suicide deaths among males in that age group in Ohio far outpaced deaths among similarly aged females from 2019 to 2021, according to ODH.

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Graphic by Mark Freistedt.

Graphic by Mark Freistedt.

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Graphic by Mark Freistedt.

Suicide is a complex issue, and a person ends his or her life not for one reason alone, said Cece Yelton, the chair of Champaign County’s suicide prevention coalition.

“Factors are a really hard thing to determine,” Yelton said. “Research tells us that’s it’s never necessarily ‘one thing’ that causes a person to complete suicide. It’s a multitude of things that occur over time.”

She said there’s also a negative stigma surrounding mental health needs, especially among men.

Many life changes combined with one another, such as the loss of a loved one, career, relationship, and for others, a medical diagnosis may also contribute to a person’s contemplation.

For suicide deaths among young people, it’s important to consider brain development, Yelton said. The brain develops from the back to front, and the last part of the brain to fully develop is the prefrontal cortex, which controls impulse control and decision-making.

“Their brains aren’t just developed to stop and pause and take action,” she said.

Greta Mayer and Rachel O’Diam of the Mental Health Recovery Board of Clark, Greene and Madison Counties echoed the complexity of suicide, pointing to the many layers surrounding a life-ending decision. Other complicating factors can include a history of mental illness and a history of substance use, too.

One in 5 people are living with mental health or substance use disorders, according to the Ohio Suicide Prevention Foundation.

Risk factors, too, are complex. Locally, the opioid epidemic likely played a role in creating “residual trauma” in the area, Mayer said.

“We’ve lost so many people over so many years,” she said. “And that impacts people.”

Similarly, community violence may also contribute to Clark County’s rate of suicide.

“It’s on everyone’s mind, it’s in every conversation.” she said. “The trauma of that, the apprehension parents have. It’s here, and we want to be a part of the solution of that: it’s a multi-disciplinary, cross-community approach.”

O’Diam and Mayer pointed to numerous signs that may indicate a person is contemplating suicide: increasing depression and anxiety, giving valuable possessions away, isolating oneself or expressing the loss of hope, showing signs of mental fatigue and forgetfulness, and more may be indicators.

Champaign County has implemented many preventative and educative efforts, and the efforts begin early on. Children in grades 6 and 9 within the county’s schools are screened for mental health and suicide risk, with their parents’ permission, Yelton said.

The screening asks students a survey of questions geared toward detecting depression and suicide ideation. For 2021′s survey. more than 1,500 students completed the screening, and 27% of those students screened “positive”: this means the students answered questions that indicate the possibility of depression or indicated in a question that they have contemplated or attempted suicide in their lifetime.

After the screenings, children who screen positive are connected to mental health resources.

In both Clark and Champaign counties, suicide prevention coalitions exist to educate their communities on the topic of suicide, provide peer training through the the Question Persuade Refer (QPR) model, and create support networks for people who have lost a loved one to suicide.

“We just don’t know what people are going to go through,” said O’Diam. “And there’s a lot of shame still carried with this. But if we can normalize talking about this, that will benefit the entire community.”

O’Diam said that hotlines and “warmlines” also exist for people locally. A warmline exists for those who may not be in a crisis situation, but may need someone to talk to about their personal struggles. The line connects them with a peer supporter who can chat with them. This line can be accessed by calling 937-662-9080.

Prevention also can exist in the home, O’Diam said, with the monitoring of firearm storage and medication, for example.

Patterson added that conversations with children and teenagers about social media use is also healthy.

“It’s an altered reality,” Patterson said. “A lot of people present the happy side of their life online, so everyone thinks ‘that’s the way life is supposed to be, and my life doesn’t measure up to that.’”

The youth population in Clark County is also being reached by several agencies, who are working to educate young people on how to support their peers.

“We’re starting early and teaching kids to ask their peers ‘are you ok?’ and look for those signs and connect with somebody to help them,” O’Diam said.

The concept of postvention is also crucial in terms of suicide death prevention, Mayer said. Postvention is counseling and other social care given after the experience of a traumatic event, especially to those directly affected by a suicide.

A person’s risk of suicide greatly increases following someone in their personal network die by suicide, Mayer and O’Diam said.

When a family loses a loved one to suicide in Clark County, a volunteer group of suicide survivors (people who have lost a loved one to suicide) respond to assist the family with the steps that follow a suicide death: arranging for an alternative place to stay, making calls to others, and connecting them to other resources, Mayer said. This group is called the Local Outreach for Suicide Survivors (LOSS) team.

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Cindy Price, who's son, Tim, died by suicide, leads the LOSS team locally in Springfield. BILL LACKEY/STAFF

Credit: Bill Lackey

Cindy Price, who's son, Tim, died by suicide, leads the LOSS team locally in Springfield. BILL LACKEY/STAFF

Credit: Bill Lackey

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Cindy Price, who's son, Tim, died by suicide, leads the LOSS team locally in Springfield. BILL LACKEY/STAFF

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

Clark County’s LOSS team was formed in 2011 through the efforts of Mayer and Cindy Price, who lost her son, Tim, to suicide in 2009.

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Tim Price. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Tim Price. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

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Tim Price. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

The younger Price died during a time in which suicide was “less recognized,” Cindy Price said.

“We have worked so much to push back against that stigma,” she said.

Price said she has responded to more than 150 suicide deaths in the area during her service on the LOSS team, where she and other volunteers have worked to walk survivors of suicide through the uncertain steps that follow a death.

She urges suicide survivors to “get help and don’t hide.”

“Please don’t be afraid to ask for help,” she said. “Try to talk to people.”

Suicide is a public health issue. If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, immediately call 800-273-TALK (800-273- 8255). The national suicide hotline is staffed around the clock. For information about warning signs, information for veterans, and local crisis centers, visit www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

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