Erie County is one of four New York counties participating in a suicide prevention study that researchers hope will identify new strategies to stop individuals from killing themselves.
A similar study in an Oregon county identified two patterns: Some people dropped off their pets at animal shelters just prior to killing themselves, others died by suicide shortly after receiving an eviction notice.
Researchers in New York hope data collected during the next two years from Erie, Onondaga, Suffolk and Westchester counties will help identify other patterns and ways to prevent suicides across the state, Brett Harris, director of public health initiatives at the Suicide Prevention Center of New York.
"Our goal is mainly to prevent future suicides," she said. "We’ll look at suicides in particular counties. Then we'll examine each and identify key points for areas of intervention."
"This is the first time we’ve done something like this," she said of the research. "It hasn’t been done much throughout the country."
Erie, Onondaga, Suffolk and Westchester counties were picked for the project because those counties rank high in the total number of suicides and are geographically spread across the state, she said.
Erie County had 312 suicide deaths from 2014 through 2016, the fifth-highest total among New York's 62 counties. The rate of suicides in Erie County was 11 a year for every 100,000 residents, which is above the statewide rate of 8.4 per year but 39th among all counties.
Harris said officials did not pick the counties with the highest suicide rates because they are often sparsely populated sites with suicide totals that are too low to analyze and draw accurate conclusions.
The Suicide Prevention Center of New York, which received a $340,000 grant from the New York State Health Foundation to conduct the research, is creating a data collection tool for the counties that will provide more information about suicide cases than what is currently captured. It is also training the staffs of the counties' medical examiner's offices how to use the tool. New York's Office of Mental Health is providing each of the counties with about $50,000 to cover their costs.
As part of the project, researchers and key stakeholders – like officials from suicide prevention organization Crisis Services, law enforcement agencies, schools, colleges and mental health experts – will discuss in detail a handful of suicide deaths from each county every quarter. Those cases, along with the data, will be used to identify patterns that may help prevent suicides across the state, Harris said.
In Washington County in Oregon, after a similar project showed that eviction notices could trigger suicide efforts, officials began having mental health counselors accompany sheriff's deputies when they serve the notices and to add a suicide hotline phone number to the paperwork. Officials there also trained animal shelter staff to look for signs that individuals dropping off pets were suicidal.
The Oregon county saw its suicide totals drop over each of the last three years while national suicide statistics climbed, according to New York's Office of Mental Health.
Jessica Pirro, the CEO of Crisis Services, hopes that Erie County has similar success in identifying patterns and reducing suicides.
She said that while her agency communicates regularly with the medical examiner's office, there have not been formalized reviews of local suicide cases by so many stakeholders, such as what is expected to begin this fall. The data available about suicides in Erie County has been very limited, too, she said.
"Our hope is we’ll be able to see if there’s trends or issues similar to Washington County that will help us formulate unique prevention efforts to help us reduce suicide," Pirro said.
Crisis Services has seen a steady increase in the number of suicide hotline calls it receives: from 3,621 in 2015 to 5,636 in 2018. The hotline can be reached 24 hours a day at 716-834-3131.