PORT ANGELES — Suicides have more than doubled in Clallam County so far in 2017 compared to all of 2016, Clallam County Prosecuting Attorney-Coroner Mark Nichols said Tuesday.
Nichols said 21 county residents have taken their own lives in 2017, including 15-year-old Ashley Wishart of Port Angeles on Monday, compared with 11 last year.
The statistic was part of Nichols’ wide-ranging “State of the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office” presentation Tuesday to two dozen Port Angeles Business Association members, who met for their weekly breakfast get-together at Joshua’s Restaurant.
Nichols also noted to the group “a remarkable increase in regards to sexual assault.”
Reports have nearly doubled
In a later interview, he said reported rapes — the total includes men and women — nearly doubled in 2016 and in 2017 compared to 2015.
In a slide presentation at the breakfast meeting, Nichols said 14 of the 21 suicide victims were in their 50s to 80s.
The youngest was Wishart, who jumped to her death Monday morning from the Valley Creek bridge and became the third person to commit suicide from the Eighth Street bridges since June.
Nichols was asked about his view of recent discussions in the community on placing suicide barriers on the Eighth Street bridges to replace the existing 4-foot, 6-inch railings that have arisen again in light of Wishart’s death.
The goal of higher barriers was championed by some residents who attended a vigil for Wishart on the bridges Monday night.
“I’ve tracked that dialogue closely, and my belief is that barriers will interfere with certain people’s intent to take their life, and that the interference might result in time for someone to intercede and stop that moment in time, which is a universal good,” Nichols said at the meeting.
“Whether or not the person is going to loop back around and attempt the same exercise in a different way, that remains to be seen.”
In a 2007 study, the journal The Lancet Psychiatry determined that when barriers were constructed at the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol, deaths from the bridge were reduced by half, and there was no evidence of an increase in jumping from other high-risk sites in the Bristol area.
“This study provides evidence for the effectiveness of barriers on bridges in preventing site-specific suicides and suicides by jumping overall in the surrounding area,” according to the study.
Nichols said what’s most important is a better understanding of what drives people to such desperation that they would kill themselves.
His breakdown of 2017 suicides shows 15 males and six females took their own lives.
Three were ages 15, 16 and 18; one was in his or her 20s; two were in their 30s; one was in his or her 40s; and the remainder were between their 50s and 80s, with the “overwhelming majority” between 60 and 89, Nichols said.
The older population often experiences traumatic loss of a spouse or child or receives a serious, negative health diagnosis, Nichols explained.
According to a couple of evaluations and investigations involving seniors committing suicide, “it appears there is a financial component that plays into this,” he added.
Seniors often retire believing they are solvent and can live independently, then fall on hard times, cannot be re-employed and don’t want to seek help from family and friends, Nichols said.
The most common single method of suicide so far in 2017 has been a gunshot wound to the head, employed by seven people, Nichols said.
Five hanged themselves, three suffocated themselves, one inhaled a toxic product and one drove a car off a cliff.
One used a table saw.
“Cause of death was ‘saw wounds of the neck,’ ” Nichols said later Tuesday in an email.
Nichols said in a later interview that his assessment of sexual assault cases is based on a crime-reports database that the county Sheriff’s Office and Port Angeles and Sequim police departments participate in, but not the Forks Police Department.
Nichols said there were 21 rapes reported to the three law enforcement agencies in 2015.
There were 41 rapes reported from Jan. 1-Nov. 12, 2016, and 35 from Jan. 1-Nov. 12, 2017.
Nichols said there also has been an increase in sex offenders who failed to report their whereabouts to law enforcement authorities — six in 2015 compared to 12 from Jan. 1-Nov. 12, 2016, and 14 from Jan. 1-Nov. 12, 2017.
When he describes the increase in sexual assaults to county residents, “it’s alarming to many people,” Nichols said.
“Is this a case of more sexual deviancy in our county, or is it the case that people are more emboldened in reporting?
“That’s the $20 million question.”
Nichols said he hopes the efforts of groups such as Healthy Families of Clallam County and the Forks Abuse Program have helped make victims feel more comfortable coming forward.
Sexual assaults also could be increasing.
“We’re not at the point where we can definitively identify why there is an increase in reporting,” Nichols said.
Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at [email protected].