Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part examination of suicide in our area as part of Mental Health Month.
A recent Friday afternoon was typically busy at the Nord Center residential crisis stabilization unit in Lorain, which assists people with mental illness, including suicidal thoughts.
An ambulance pulled up in the parking lot to take a young woman who threatened suicide to Mercy Regional Medical Center. The woman was the subject of an involuntary hospitalization order, known as a pink slip, but willingly walked to the ambulance.
As counselors fielded calls on the crisis hotline in the lobby, a slightly agitated woman drank medication from a paper cup as she spoke with a counselor. “I’m not happy,” she told a counselor as she rocked from side to side.
In a nearby room, a young man who had entered in a psychotic state was talked down by a counselor. He had accused his father of abusing him, but was later determined not to be at risk of suicide. However, counselors decided to check on the father because his wife told them he had been acting like a “zombie” after taking his son’s thorazine pills.
Christopher Gerome, emergency services team leader, oversees the unit which has up to nine staffers working on busy days. The unit averages about 10 clients per day, but can see as many as 20 on a busy day.
Many call from Amherst, Oberlin, and Wellington where our reporters have seen an influx of police reports dealing with suicide attempts.
Gerome said Fridays are busy because it’s the end of the work week and many people who’ve been struggling to cope with problems lose control and seek help. Mondays are also busy after people who’ve had stressful weekends seek assistance.
While dealing with clients can be chaotic and stressful, Gerome, a clinical intervention specialist hired in 1996, speaks softly and maintains a practiced composure. Staff, which include counselors, nurses and social workers, must determine how at risk a client is of suicide. Suicidal children or adults with access to weapons are giving the highest priority but determining risk is often difficult.
“What I do is what I call ‘juggling chainsaws’ because you never, ever want to drop a chainsaw,” Gerome said. “If there’s ever a risky situation, we’re all looking out for each other as best we can.”
The always-difficult job of Gerome and his colleagues is becoming harder.
In 2014, the latest year statistics were available, 42,779 people committed suicide in the U.S., according to a report released April 22 by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics. Suicides, the 10th leading causes of death in America, are up 46 percent since 1999, a national low point.
Ohio has mirrored the national trend.
In 2013, 1,526 people committed suicide in Ohio. And the state’s suicide rate increased 27 percent from 2000 to 2010, according to the Ohio Suicide Prevention Foundation which analyzed CDC numbers.
The Columbus Dispatch reported in November that 20,000 Ohioans have committed suicide since 2000, nearly triple the number of homicide victims.
Lorain County, which has a population of approximately 305,000, had 39 suicides last year and has averaged 38 the last five years, according to the Lorain County coroner’s office. Dr. Stephen Evans, Lorain County coroner, said his office doesn’t have a breakdown of suicides by community so statistics for Amherst, Oberlin, and Wellington were unavailable.
However, Evans said the problem is countywide. He said the loss of well-paying jobs, the national opiate epidemic, and easy access to guns have contributed to the increase.
Another cause is anti-depressant drugs. Evans said doctors have to be careful about how they calibrate the dosages they prescribe. While designed to decrease depression, the drugs can sometimes give a depressed, listless person more energy, which can actually motivate them to kill themselves.
In response to increasing suicides, county and state officials are working to educate people about suicide and reduce the stigma over seeking help for depression.
Kathleen Kern, Lorain County Board of Mental Health assistant director, has worked with about 100 suicidal people, primarily young people, since becoming a psychologist in 1999. She said common traits of suicidal people are apathy, a belief that they are a burden on others, feelings of isolation and hopelessness, and reckless behavior that puts their lives at risk.
The district works with people who may regularly come in contact with suicidal people such as clergy, paramedics, police officers, and school counselors.
Kern said untrained people dealing with someone who has spoken of suicide often react in two ways: One is to immediately call 911 and try to get the person to a hospital; the other is to dismiss their concerns, saying that everyone gets depressed and they’ll get over it.
Kern said the correct approach is to listen and let the person know that they shouldn’t be ashamed for expressing suicidal thoughts and that they won’t be alone if they seek help.
“We’re trying hard to be more proactive,” Kern said, “by educating the community as a whole and specific subsections of the community that may be at risk.”
Suicidal people or friends and relatives of people they suspect may be suicidal are urged to call the Nord Center crisis line, which is staffed 24 hours per day.
The center, which served about 7,500 clients in the last fiscal year, started the line in 1990, said Doreen Gilchrist, director of emergency stabilization services.
It is staffed by clinical counselors or social workers who fielded about 16,000 calls last year. Calls are ranked from on a scale from one to six with one being calls involving people in imminent risk of hurting themselves or others.
The center has also established a “warm line” for people who are depressed but aren’t believed to be suicidal. Gilchrist said it’s staffed by “peer support specialists.”
The specialists aren’t licensed professionals, but are trained to provide guidance and recognize people who need emergency care. The pilot program is paid for by the county mental health board. “They thought it was an important piece of what we do here,” Gilchrist said.
The board coordinates the Suicide Prevention Coalition, which includes staff from area hospitals, mental health professionals, and school counselors. The group, which Kern said has about 20 regular members, meets every two months
Evans is among the members. He is often called to the scene of suicides and has the gut-wrenching job of trying to console the victim’s family.
The coroner said many victims don’t understand before they take their own lives that the pain and suffering they’re feeling gets transferred to their loved ones when they die. Many spouses and relatives are haunted by the deaths and racked with guilt.
“The family is left for the rest of their lives with, ‘What if?’” Evans said. “’Should we have done that? Should we have done this?’”
While suicides involve just a fraction of the population, they cause immense pain. Evans said reducing suicides is an extremely difficult job.
“We’re searching for answers but obviously we haven’t found the answer yet,” he said.
Evan Goodenow can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @GoodenowNews on Twitter.
Evan Goodenow | Civitas Media Operators at the Nord Center’s crisis hotline handling incoming calls.