A 19-year-old man, a 47-year-old man and a 51-year-old woman have one thing in common: All three attempted suicide in Gilbert last weekend.
The woman, who threatened to kill herself with a handgun inside her home last Friday, was eventually persuaded to put the gun down, according to Gilbert police. She was transported to a local hospital.
The same could not be said about the two men. Both were declared deceased in their homes, the man on Thursday and the teenager on Sunday, Gilbert police said.
While the number of Gilbert suicides can be affected by the large population growth the town has experienced in the last decade, the rate has increased nearly threefold from 2001 to 2011, according to the Health Status Report for Cities and Towns in Maricopa County, published by the Department of Health Services. (The 2011 numbers are preliminary and may be adjusted by the county once they receive the final end year data.)
“We’re seeing a lot of suicides — attempts, threats or completions,” said Sgt. Bill Balafas, Gilbert Police Department spokesman.
Balafas estimates that the Gilbert police department sees nearly four threats, attempts or completions each week, with maybe one completed suicide per week.
At Mercy Gilbert Medical Center, the number of mental health consultations in the past few years has gone up and some of those have been related to suicide attempts, according to Dr. Daniel Merrill, Mercy Gilbert medical director in the department of psychiatry.
Last year, there were 31 completed suicides in Gilbert, the most current year for statistics by the Maricopa County Department of Public Health. It’s the highest number and the highest rate of suicides the town has seen in more than a decade. In 2000, the earliest year statistics are available, there were 7 suicides in the town.
“If I had to guess, it’s probably tied to the economy,” Balafas said. “But each of their individual circumstances is going to be different.”
While it’s impossible to tie the rise entirely to the economy, Merrill has noticed a change in the typical person who commits suicide.
“A lot of them are young men in their 20s and 30s,” he said. “Sometimes it’s because they can’t find work or the economy destroyed their business.”
Since 2008, the number of suicides has been much higher than it had been previously, according to the Health Status Report. The rate increased from 6.9 per 100,000 residents in 2007 to 13.2 per 100,000 residents in 2008.
“It’s distressing for everyone,” Balafas said. “Families are losing their loved ones and children are preceding their parents in death.”
The youngest suicide he remembers during his time employed by the town was a 12- or 13-year-old, he said.
“It’s people of all ages,” he said. “These are people who have gotten to a point where suicide seems like it’s rational at the time.”
Balafas warns that often, friends and family think that the person is only depressed, but they need to be aware that they may be suicidal.
“It can be preventable: We all need to know the signs,” Balafas said.
According to Merrill, there are a number of warning signs.
“One of the most obvious signs is if they start talking about suicide, especially if it’s a new thing and they begin mentioning it in off-hand, casual ways,” Merrill said.
Additionally, be aware if a loved one has increased his or her drug or alcohol use, become impulsive and is taking unnecessary risks or expressing a strong wish to die, Merrill said.
Alcohol intoxication often plays a part in suicide attempts and completions and may explain why last weekend had such a seemingly high number, Merrill said.
“We would expect an uptick on Labor Day weekend,” he said. “Intoxication makes the risks go way, way up.”
But, he clarified, that doesn’t mean that alcohol causes suicide, only that those who are already thinking about suicide have a much higher chance of following through with it if they are intoxicated.
“They start feeling symptoms of feeling trapped, like there’s no way out,” Merrill said. “And this is especially true of older, white men if they start saying they’re a burden on others or they think they’re causing so many problems.”
But there is treatment available, Merrill said. Cognitive therapy can help get those thoughts out of your head and non-addictive medications can also help.
“Exercise is also important,” he said.
He recommends vigorous, moderate exercise such as yoga, weightlifting and running.
If you or someone you know needs help, contact a local mental health professional, visit the Arizona Suicide Prevention Coalition at azspc.org, or call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255). Maricopa Crisis Response can be reached at (602) 222-9444. If it is an emergency, always dial 9-1-1.
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