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Posted: August 16, 2014 10:00 p.m.

Suicide numbers scary in Georgia

Robin Williams’ death raises awareness of public health issue

When a plane crashes, it’s national news.

When someone kills themselves, it’s really not news at all. Unless it’s Robin Williams, whose death pushed suicide to the public’s attention. While Williams’ death is shocking, the numbers are more so.

Jennifer Wilds, the assistant coordinator of Viewpoint Health and chair of the Newton/Rockdale Suicide Prevention Coalition, said 39,000 people died by suicide in the U.S. in 2011, the most recent year such numbers are available. The number in Georgia was 1,100.

It gets worse. In 2011, suicide was the 10th leading cause of deaths nationwide. In Georgia, it’s the second leading cause of deaths in adults ages 25-34, the third in the 15-24 age group (Wilds calls that “super-frightening”), and the fourth in age groups 10-14, 35-44 and 45-54.

It gets worse still. “For Georgia students in the sixth through 12th grades, in 2013, 672 youths stated that they had attempted suicide in the past year. And 1,107 said they had seriously considered suicide in the past year.”

In the six eastern and metro counties (including Newton and Rockdale) that make up the Department of Behavioral Help and Developmental Disabilities’ region 3, suicide prevention specialists fielded 500 calls for help in July alone.

“I think we need to make sure we are getting people the support they need, whether health support, medication or just becoming involved in community life and decreasing their sense of isolation,” she said Saturday.

The number of deaths in Newton County, on the surface at least, “is not hugely overwhelming, but the number of people who are seriously considering it is very high.”

Why? People don’t know who to call for help. And there’s a stigma attached to asking for help.

A man Wilds spoke with recently said he didn’t want to take “cuckoo pills,” but “he ended up in the emergency room because he didn’t take those ‘cuckoo pills.’”

It’s important, she said, to get the right services and support at the right time.

If someone (or yes, yourself) is actively suicidal, call 911.

“If it’s kind of before that level and they’re having these thoughts and talking about it, we have a Georgia crisis line, 24/7, 365 days a year,” she said. “They are trained professionals and can help with problems over the phone and they have mobile crisis teams who can go to homes … to schools, wherever people need them to come, to do an assessment.”

Those teams, if needed, can take people to hospitals or help them make appointments for medical or emotional care.

What to look for

So how does a family member know help is needed right now? There are things to look for, Wilds said.

“Obviously threats (of suicide), but some people start giving away possessions or acting really reckless or engaging in really risky behaviors they might not have done in the past,” she said. Other things to note include “not seeing a future in themselves, hopelessness, anger, withdrawing from family and friends, not being interested in the things they were once interested in, problems sleeping or sleeping more than normal … no hope for the future, increasing alcohol or drug use, mood swings, and obvious threats (like) ‘I don’t want to be alive anymore.’”

The Newton/Rockdale coalition’s plan is called QPR – question, persuade, refer.

“We can come out to church groups, law enforcement groups, school groups, and we can teach you what to do in those cases. … It’s really questioning somebody when they make a statement like that, persuading them to get help and taking the next step to get that help.”

The coalition has 25 trained specialists in Newton and Rockdale counties. All services are free.

“We really want to get out to some of these groups - veterans, the elderly, young people,” she said. “A lot of times a young person is going to tell it to a young person friend; they’re not going to go to a counselor or a parent.”

Today, “middle-aged men are the highest population right now of people taking their own lives.”

She had two cousins in 40s kill themselves in last 15 months.

“It’s personal for a lot of people. To me, those two lives were well worth saving. This is something that could be happening to your brother, your sister. It’s frightening.”

And the national media isn’t helping. Remember that “Aladdin” picture released by Disney saying Williams was now at peace? Ugh.

“There have been a lot of things coming out in the media idolizing it,” Wilds said. “Like that Aladdin piece, ‘now you’re at peace.’ Does that give them the wrong message? Now they might do it themselves.”

Fortunately, the news since Williams’ death is not all bad. In the last several days, calls to the national suicide prevention hotline have increased about four times.

“If you need somebody, if you have any thoughts that maybe they’re contemplating it, see if you can get them to some support,” she said. “It’s a public health problem that effects people, affects communities, affects everybody.”

According to the federal government, each suicide effects on average six people. Wilds thinks that’s low.

“Another thing, think about the number of people who die in plane crashes. We have 100 people killed, obviously that’s tragic, that’s a lot of people, but we have 39,000 die in the country each year by suicide.

“If 39,000 people were gone tomorrow, don’t you think we’d have some legislation, some action? But suicide kind of gets swept under the rug sometimes.”

The Newton/Rockdale coalition is overseen by the state Department of Behavioral Help and Developmental Disabilities, which offers support, leadership, and some money.

September is suicide prevention awareness month.

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