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'SUICIDE RATE IS OUTRAGEOUS': LOCAL OFFICIAL TOUTS PREVENTION

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Daytona Beach News-Journal on November 21, 1999.

Three more Volusia County residents took their own lives last weekend.

Their deaths brought the county's 1999 suicide total to 72, a number that shocks local experts and places the county far ahead of national and state averages.

"It's outrageous this year," said one employee in the Medical Examiner's Office. "They just keep coming in."

Suicide, by a variety of means and methods, pops up every few pages in the list of cases compiled by the county medical examiner. It's a startling total, surpassing the number of county homicides and placing the county well above the national average of 11.6 suicides per 100,000 people.

Volusia County has seen 17.4 suicides per 100,000 people so far this year, based on a population of about 414,000. The county's figures also top the state's, which saw 2,156 suicides in 1998, a rate of 14.3 suicides for every 100,000 people.

Flagler County's rate isn't far behind Volusia's. Although the county saw only seven suicides last year and the same number so far this year its smaller population puts its rate at 16.1 suicides per 100,000 people in 1998 and 14.9 this year.

Volusia is also well on its way to the number it posted last year, when 77 people killed themselves. The problem has become more visible this year following the recent rash of teen-age suicides and railroad deaths.

Each of the past four months has seen an increase in suicides from the same month a year ago, with 16 suicides in August, 17 in September and 14 in October.

Four people have already killed themselves this month.

"It really looks like a trend," said Dr. Tom Beaver, medical examiner for Volusia and Seminole counties. "There's a disproportionate number of suicides, but it's too early for me to tell why."

It's also too early to tell how high this year's figures will go. Officials are somewhat heartened by the fact that, contrary to popular belief, few Volusia County residents committed suicide around the holidays last November and December.

But post-holiday statistics are still a cause for concern. Seven people killed themselves in January 1999, compared to 11 the previous January.

In addition to having a higher rate of suicides than the state and nation, Volusia County also differs in the ages of its victims. Nationally, 50 percent more people over 65 kill themselves than the population in general.

Here, most suicide victims are middle aged, with the peak age groups being 30-to-39 year olds and 40-to-49 year olds.

The county's suicide rate has Beaver so concerned that he plans on presenting his findings to the County Council early in 2000. The goal, he said, is to get community leaders interested in addressing the problem.

"I'm in the process of putting it together," he said. "I don't have any answers."

Suicide is much more difficult for a community to deal with than homicide, Beaver said. "I'm anticipating a negative response from community leaders," he said. "The problem is very hard and they don't know how to deal with it."

Many times, local experts said, public organizations don't like talking about suicide.

"They have an attitude of ignore it and it will go away,'" said Rita Repp, leader of a support group for survivors of suicide. "That's so backwards."

Some local experts hope they can help offer suggestions. "People are finally recognizing that this has been a problem for a long time," said Laura Meyer, founder of SPAN Florida, a burgeoning local chapter of a national organization.

"It's not in the forefront yet, but we're trying to bring it out in the open," she said.

DeLand-based SPAN Florida the Suicide Prevention Advocacy Network incorporated last month. The grass-roots organization tries to get state and local governments to put prevention plans in place.

Individuals and communities must change their attitudes, said Repp, whose ASSURE support group is affiliated with the county Mental Health Association.

"There really needs to be a better understanding of mental health and depression," she said. "We need to start in the grammar schools and teach people how to face life."

Similar movements are progressing on a national level.

"We must promote public awareness that suicides are preventable," Surgeon General David Satcher said in a speech on the issue over the summer. "We must remember that prevention begins at home, and the work of suicide prevention must be done at the community level."

Getting official community leader involvement is perhaps the best way to "stem the flow" of suicide, experts said. "If you communicate that you don't want to hear about it," said Dr. Lanny Berman, executive director of the American Association of Suicidology, "you're communicating that you don't give a damn about people. That creates suicidal behavior."

A community that's willing to help is more likely to have residents seek out assistance, he said. "The more politicians you have behind it, the more public education you have, the more the rates tend to fall," Berman said.

Even if suicide rates don't jump during the holidays, Berman said it's vital that the problems of depressed people are noted, especially this time of year.

"They should be aware of people feeling lonely and isolated," he said. They should be attentive to any communications. They should be aware of behavior. Suicidal behavior is almost always preceded by other behavior."

With Volusia County's more transient population, it's especially vital that community support is available, experts said. "People that are in a depressed state really need to be able to reach out for help and talk to somebody," Repp said.

Repp got involved with ASSURE when her son committed suicide 15 years ago. After a divorce, her son had moved to Las Vegas and "didn't really have a support system."

"People who are new to the area don't have a root system," she said. They need to know someone cares."

And that, Beaver said, is what he hopes the county can provide.

"The community can pull together to stem the tide," he said. "The problem is significant enough that we need to take a look.

"Volusia County has a lot of community strength. Some of these suicides can be prevented."


Sidebar:
Who to contact

Individuals contemplating suicide can contact:

Act Corporation's 24-hour crisis line: 255-7384.

Halifax Medical Center/ Psychiatric Center 24-hour crisis line: 254-4080.

The national hope line network has a 24-hour national hot line: (888)SUICIDE (784-2433).

Other support and advocacy groups:

SPAN Suicide Prevention Advocacy Network - c/o the Mental Health Association of Volusia County: 252-5785.

ASSURE, a support group for those who have lost loved ones to suicide: 252-5785.



About

This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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