October 25, 2021

You’re not alone

Several organizations are working to get county suicide rate to zero

Photo illustration by Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

With suicide rates on the rise, be on the lookout for these warning signs and call for help if needed.

Suicide exists across a large age spectrum. From elementary school kids to elders in their 90s, according to Alex Huntington-Ofner, youth service director and single point of access coordinator for the Cortland County Mental Health department.

That is one of the most alarming aspects of suicide, she said. Especially with suicide rates doubling in the county last year –– from 7.3 per 100,000 population in 2016 to 15.8 in 2017, higher than both the state and national rates of 7.9 and 13.3, respectively.

As of July 2016, the population in Cortland County is 48,070.

Get help

Who you can talk to:

• Cortland County Mental Health Department: 607-758-6100
• Suicide Prevention & Crisis Service Line: 607-272-1616
• National Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-8255

Along with those who have died by suicide, there are others who have suicidal thoughts but do not act on them. They have just had enough of the life they are living and can’t take the pain they are dealing with anymore, Huntington-Ofner said.

One of her friends had those thoughts. Huntington-Ofner said one of her good friends was someone who loved spending time with her family and doing outdoors activities. But over a period of time that stopped.

Huntington-Ofner said her friend was struggling with depression, and while she did not want to kill herself, she had thoughts of not wanting to live.

Her friend admitted to her she was depressed and Huntington-Ofner helped her to get with a counselor.

“She is doing much better,” Huntington-Ofner said.

The reasons

About 90 percent of people with mental health issues, such as depression, do recover, Huntington-Ofner said. The key is getting them support when they need it.

The overall rate of suicide deaths is higher in rural areas, such as Cortland, than in non-rural areas, according to Julie Cerel, president of the American Association of Suicidology. That disparity is due to a lack of access to services in rural areas, she said.

In Cortland County, Huntington- Ofner said one potential reason for the increase in suicide rates is more people are willing to speak up about it. In a car accident where the driver has died, she said it can be difficult to determine the cause — whether it was a mechanical issue or something else. If the accident was suicide, Huntington- Ofner said there has been a stigma about talking about it.

But more families have been speaking about a loved one who was struggling. So while the suicide rate in Cortland County has doubled, it could just be more deaths are being recorded as suicides. There have been national campaigns to destigmatize conversations about suicide, Huntington-Ofner said.

Also, Huntington-Ofner said another reason is people are “very stressed out.”

Cortland police Lt. David Guerrera said in each case he has dealt with, the reasons are different for each person. Some may be dealing with the loss of a job, or a loved one.

There are some people who turn to drugs to help them cope with their issues, Guerrera said. That may lead to them overdosing, either intentionally or unintentionally.

While suicide can occur in any demographic, Colleen Creighton, executive director of the American Association of Suicidology, said national suicide rates are higher for middle aged white men. Huntington- Ofner and Guerrera said the trend is the same in Cortland.

The reasons for that vary, as well. Creighton said there is a lot happening at that age for men. They may be reconsidering different aspects of their life.

Also, “Men typically don’t reach out for help,” Creighton said.

Huntington-Ofner added that men tend to use more lethal means for suicide and tend to have more access to weapons.

Increases in suicide

National suicide rates for children and younger girls has been on the rise lately, too, Creighton said. One possible reason for the increase is a lack of “exceptional” mental health services that actually help to tackle the issue.

Seeing celebrities dying by suicide widely publicized through the media does not help that cause, Creighton said.

“Some think, if a rock star or someone like Robin Williams ends their life, what hope is there for me?” Creighton said.

They read, or hear how the celebrity died and may try to imitate that method of suicide. There have been guidelines for reporting on suicide deaths created for the media, so a celebrity’s death is not potentially glamorized.

Suicide has been on the rise nationally for years, Creighton said. Between 1999 to 2014, it rose by 24 percent from 10.5 per 100,000 population to 13, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

About 20 years ago, there were the same number of deaths by suicide as there were from breast cancer, Creighton said. But now, rates of death from breast cancer have decreased, while suicide rates have gone up. That could be the result of a lot more funding and research going into preventing breast cancer than preventing suicide, she said.

How to help

Huntington-Ofner said there are a lot of people who want to help the cause and learn how to help someone who is suicidal. In 2017, the Cortland County Mental Health Department trained 140 first responders on how to help and work with someone who might be suicidal. Police officers, teachers and many others have also received the free training. Huntington-Ofner said the department will provide the training to anyone who wants to learn how to help.

The most important step to help someone who may be dealing with depression or even suicidal thoughts is to just reach out to them, Huntington-Ofner said.

“It is important for people to know someone is there for them,” Creighton said. “People need an outlet to bring it up and speak about it.”

She said to let them know you are there for them and do not be afraid to ask them if they are OK. She acknowledges it can be a hard conversation for both parties to have, but it is an important one.

Do not be afraid to bluntly ask someone if they are thinking about killing themselves, she added.

“You are not going to push them further to wanting to commit suicide,” she said. “Go right into it. Don’t ease in, you may get off topic.”

When talking with someone who is thinking of suicide, Huntington-Ofner suggested listening to their problems and trying to find them the right help, such as speaking with a counselor. If you do not know what help they need, there are many organizations, such as the county Mental Health Department, who can help, as well as suicide prevention hot lines. If the person has already harmed himself, call 911.

In Cortland County there is a mobile crisis team, comprising a therapist and a case manager, who can be dispatched to anywhere in the county to help someone during the evening or throughout the week, Huntington-Ofner said.

There is also the Emotionally Disturbed Persons Response team, which Cortland police Lt. Guerrera has been a part of for the past seven years. They are another group of trained professionals who can help deal with mentally ill individuals.

“There are a lot of small organizations (in Cortland County) that can help,” Guerrera said. “It is about putting them all together to make it work.”

It is one way the county can work toward its goal of zero suicides in the county, he said. For those who have suicidal thoughts, try connecting with someone in the community, Huntington-Ofner said, much like her friend did. Do not leave everything bottled up. Even if that person you first talk to can’t help, they might be able to direct you to someone who can.

“People do recover,” she said.