Suicides spike on Peninsula; numbers up in Clallam, Jefferson

PORT ANGELES — Suicides on the North Olympic Peninsula are outpacing last year, according to coroner statistics for Clallam and Jefferson counties.

There were 19 self-inflicted deaths in Clallam by Aug. 6 compared to 13 through Aug. 31, 2017.

In Jefferson County, there were 10 suicides by July 31, just one fewer than all of 2017, when there were six by July 31 of that year.

The Clallam County suicides included three people who hanged themselves Aug. 2-6 in unrelated deaths — two women in Sequim and the Port Angeles area and a 30-year-old man near Sequim.

Clallam’s 19 suicides as of Aug. 6 — with almost five months to go in the year — compare to 23 in all of 2017, which was a record year for at least the last decade.

Wendy Sisk, CEO of Peninsula Behavioral Health (PBH), said Friday she was unaware of the increase, adding there’s been an escalation of suicides across the nation.

“We don’t always hear when there’s been a completed suicide in the county,” she said.

Sisk said PBH has reached out to county Prosecuting Attorney-Coroner Mark Nichols to be notified when they occur.

Nichols plots suicides by the month, along with deaths by drug overdose and accidents, at https://tinyurl.com/PDN-DeathStats.

“We do get a lot of calls from family members and other who are impacted,” Sisk said.

She did not know if more people have been seeking help lately from PBH to address suicidal thoughts.

“We track diagnoses, but we don’t necessarily track symptoms, and suicidal ideation is a symptom of the illnesses of patients we treat,” Sisk said.

PBH staff treat patients who have depression, substance abuse problems or are classified as Z-code — issues that don’t rise to the level of a mental disorder and are centered on parent-child concerns, learning disabilities or interpersonal relationships, such as those at work.

“We see people with a wide variety of mental health concerns who report suicidal ideation as a symptom of that illness,” Sisk said.

In Jefferson County, there were four completed suicides in July — two by asphyxia and two by gunshots — by two men and two women.

They ranged in ages from a 20-year-old man who shot himself to a 96-year-old woman who died by asphyxia, Prosecuting Attorney-Coroner Mike Haas said.

From January to June, the six Jefferson County suicides ranged from a 19-year-old man to an 80-year-old man.

Both occurred in the Port Ludlow-area and both were deaths by gunshot, the most common method of suicide, followed by hanging.

The 10 suicides in 2018 are higher than any total for any year since 2006 except for the 11 in 2017 and 2014 and 15 in 2016, the highest toll of self-inflicted deaths since at least 2006.

Clallam County had 194 suicides between 2008 and Aug. 6, while Jefferson County had 92 in that span and 104 since 2006.

Jefferson County Coroner’s Office suicide statistics from 2006 through July are at https://tinyurl.com/PDN-JeffersonSuicides.

The total could be higher than the actual numbers, Haas speculated, noting that some overdoses could be self-inflicted.

“We could have had more than 10 in that time period,” he said, adding that 10 could be “kind of a conservative number.”

In 2017, five males and five females died by suicide in Jefferson County — four of gunshots, four from hanging and three from drug overdoses.

The uptick in suicides in Clallam County speaks to an ongoing public health issue, Sisk and Nichols said.

“It’s a reminder to us all that we need to be more attentive to the health of our community, and more involved not only in but our senior population as well,” Nichols said.

The average age of the completed suicides was 51 in Clallam County in July through the first week of August.

The average age of the completed suicides was 54½ in Jefferson County from January through July.

Nichols said the increase speaks to the need “to be more attentive and deliberate” in addressing health needs and “more attentive in recognizing the existence of conditions like depression, more attentive to the dangers they can present.”

Is there a tipping point at which so many deaths by suicide occur that suicide as a symptom should be directly addressed?

“We saw that happen this year,” Sisk said.

It happened when the number of people jumping off the 100-f00t-tall Eighth Street bridges in Port Angeles became unacceptable to the community, she said.

Four people between June 4, 2017 and March 12, 2018 intentionally cleared the 4-foot, 6-inch railings and fell to their deaths, and eight overall have done so since the bridges opened in February 2009 with shorter barriers than the bridges they replaced.

Following the Nov. 13, 2017 death of 15-year-old Ashley Ann Wishart, the City Council reversed course.

Workers are adding 8-foot, 8-inch to 10-foot, 7-inch barriers to the bridges in a project that will be completed by Sept. 14 as part of a $771,000 project.

Funding included $124,000 in community donations.

The community said, “we have to do something about people killing themselves by jumping off the Eighth Street bridges,” Sisk said.

“There was public support to move forward to do something.”

The current reality is that more people die by suicide than by opioid overdose, in part because of a concerted effort to address opioid deaths, including the widespread availability of naloxone, Sisk said.

There’s no similar manner to address suicide.

“Many of the most high-risk individuals in the county are not necessarily coming into contact with individuals who have the skills and wherewithal to know they have to intervene,” Sisk said.

It’s hard to know some people are even at risk for taking their own lives, she added.

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Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at [email protected].

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