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Editorial: Progress on suicides

It only seemed like T.S. Eliot was thinking about Buffalo weather when he wrote that “April is the cruelest month.” As we dress in parkas to attend baseball games, or pick out Easter outfits with down insulation, it’s easy to joke about being depressed.

While actual depression is a serious matter, there is one trend in Erie County that should bring a slight smile to our faces. Despite an increase in suicides in the United States — sufficient to have been called a national health crisis — the number of people taking their own lives in the county decreased in 2018.

Suicide is a complex subject with many contributing factors, but part of the credit for the positive trend must go to the Suicide Prevention Coalition of Erie County, a division of Crisis Services. Their outreach program goes to schools, churches and other civic organizations and venues, educating people on suicide prevention and mental health issues.

The tragedy of suicide burst into the news again in recent days as three people associated with school shootings took their own lives. Two survivors of the 2018 Parkland, Fla., massacre died by suicide, as did the father of a student shot in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn. Nationally, more than 47,000 people committed suicide in 2017, a dramatic rise from the 29,000 who did so in 1999.

In 2018, the number of people in Erie County who died by suicide was 95, according to Michael Ranney, the county’s mental health commissioner. That number comes with an asterisk, as the Medical Examiner’s office has not made a final determination on some cases. But the number is a decline from 2017, when there were 111 suicides.

“One life lost is too many,” Ranney told The News, but the Suicide Prevention Coalition has helped to move the needle.

Celia Spacone is coordinator for the coalition and former executive director of the Buffalo Psychiatric Center. Spacone said “some of our efforts are starting to work” in reducing suicides.

Spacone said the coalition’s training program in schools is extensive. “We want everyone in the school to be suicide-aware,” she told The News. Close to 3,000 school staff members have been trained over the past year in Erie County, she said.

“What are the risk factors, the warning signs? How do you get that student to the right person?”

A rise in depression and anxiety among young people has been well-documented in the past few years, but Ranney pointed out that middle-aged men are also a high-risk group for suicide, particularly those from ages 51-60.

“Some of it has to do with a fast-paced life, men nearing the end of their careers and maybe developing chronic health conditions,” Ranney said. “There is a high correlation with depression.”

Spacone said about two-thirds of suicides in Erie County are men in their middle years.

“They don’t want to reach out and get help, it’s hard for them to admit they are struggling,” Spacone said.

Despite New York State’s reputation in some circles as a land of stagnation and decline, our state ranked last in suicide rates — 50th out of 50 — in the most recent statistics compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In CDC figures for 2017, New York had 8.1 suicide deaths for every 100,000 in total population.

“New York City has a lower suicide rate than upstate, because they offer more services” for mental health treatment, Spacone said.

The state’s with the highest suicide rates, per the CDC, were Montana (28.9 deaths per 100,000 people), Alaska (27.0), Wyoming (26.9), New Mexico (23.3) and Idaho (23.2). Those states have large rural populations, as well as a high percentage of gun ownership.

“Half of suicides nationally are with firearms,” Spacone said.

That’s a good reason for New York’s passage this year of the Red Flag Law, which allows law enforcement officials, family members or school officials to seek a petition to seize the guns of people that courts find are a danger to themselves or others.

The leading method of self-inflicted death in Erie County is asphyxiation by hanging.

Just as Erie County had made progress in reducing the number of opioid overdose deaths, county health officials are to be commended for their suicide prevention efforts.

Crisis Services can be reached at 716-834-3131. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline can be reached at 800-273-8255.

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