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Suicide Series Part 1: Trinity County Tops the State in Suicides; Shasta County Doubles State Suicide Average

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a four-part series by reporter Bill Siemer that examines suicide statistics and what people are doing to help.

Shasta County residents commit suicide at twice the statewide average. Trinity County ranks the highest of all the counties in the state for suicide. White men over the age of 84 commit suicide more than others. Suicide rates among American Indians nationally are higher than those of other Americans. No one knows how many military veterans are killing themselves, but the estimate is one every 80 minutes. Active-duty soldiers are taking their own lives at a higher rate than ever before.

No one fully understands this complex problem. “Hopelessness” seems to be the answer most often given. People are trying to do something about it. The voters passed Proposition 63 in 2004, taxing millionaires to help fund county mental health programs. Phone crisis lines are available to help. But people who have bottomed out, who see suicide as their only option, don’t ask for help.

Sobering statistics

Trinity County has the dubious distinction of having the highest suicide rate in California, according to a July 11 story in The Trinity Journal. Nationally, there are 10 suicides a year for every 100,000 people. Trinity County, which has a population of less than 14,000, has an average of seven suicides a year, five times the national rate.

Local officials blame the high rate of suicide on isolation, substance abuse and the number of firearms. They are taking steps to reduce suicide by installing a “friendship” line for senior citizens and another for young people with text and chat options. Both will be staffed by volunteers.

In 2011 there were 54 suicides in Shasta County, according to Janet Breshears, chief deputy coroner for the past two years and a member of the Sheriff’s Office for 25 years. Of these, 33 were gunshot deaths; there were also 11 hangings, six overdoses, two deaths by carbon monoxide, and two by blunt force trauma. Overdoses are the most difficult to determine. The scene of the death is important. Is there a note? Are there empty pill containers? Have there been prior attempts? Pistols are used in most gunshot deaths, though it’s not uncommon to have long guns involved.

The coroner’s office determines what is suicide and what isn’t. If there is any doubt, they lean toward finding that the cause of death is “undetermined,” Breshears said.  That’s because of the stigma attached to suicide or attempted suicide, which keeps people from talking about it or taking steps to prevent it.

There are 192,000 people in Shasta County, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Katie Cassidy and Jeremy Wilson of Shasta County Mental Health compiled suicide statistics for Shasta County between the years of 2007 and 2009. Shasta County, and most rural counties, have a higher rate of suicide than urban areas. Basically, twice as many people kill themselves in Shasta County compared with the state rate.

Their Shasta County Suicide Prevention Community Assessment found that middle-aged, white males are most likely to commit suicide, except for men 84 years and older, who take their lives more than any other group. In Shasta County, males have a much higher rate of suicide death than females because they are more likely to use firearms. Females, however, have a higher rate of suicide attempts.

Suicide in American Indian population

Neither the community assessment nor the coroner’s office keeps track of the ethnicity of suicides. However, the Indian Health Service, in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, estimates in a recent report that American Indians have an 82 percent higher suicide rate than other Americans.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death for young Indian males between the ages of 10 and 24. The suicide rate for Indian males in 2003, according to another study, was two to four times that of same-age males in other racial or ethnic groups and eleven times that of same-age females.

Dennis Thompson, a drug and alcohol counselor for the Pit River Health Service in Burney, and Melinda Adams, the behavioral health director at the same facility, said that the rate of American Indian suicides is significantly under-reported.

“People wander off…bodies are found,” they said. The American Indian population doesn’t talk about it or seek help. There is stigma attached to suicide, just as there is in the Caucasian culture. Why does suicide have such a stigma? Adams theorizes it’s because we are so afraid of our own deaths that we are threatened by the subject.

Adams is one of the facilitators of the Women’s Talking Circle. That meeting offers safety, she says, and members talk about everything, including death and suicide. All 10 members are over 55. It has been in existence for two-and-a-half years, meeting weekly. It gives her hope that the suicide issue in the American Indian population will someday be addressed.

Thompson and Adams are responsible for American Indians from Burney to Alturas, 1,300 in total. There is “intergenerational” post-traumatic stress and substance abuse in that community.

“Anyone who has worked with the Native Americans has knowledge of the broken promises and treaties, Indian boarding schools, relocation to rural reservations, the prejudice and oppression,” Thompson says.

Only 33 percent of American Indians graduate from high school—which contributes to 37 percent unemployment and little trust for white Americans and the institutions they provide. American Indians rarely use any of the local drug and alcohol programs. And, unfortunately, Thompson and Adams have nowhere to send their suicidal clients, often being forced to send them home to troubled families and alcohol and drugs.

Suicide rate among senior citizens

The highest rate of suicides in Shasta County is men 84 years old and over, according to the Shasta County Suicide Prevention Community Assessment. Between 2007 and 2009, about 55 out of every 100,000 in that age group killed themselves. The next highest group was men between the ages of 35 and 44, who committed suicide at a rate of approximately 35 out of every 100,000.

“Older people are far less ambivalent about suicide than young people,” said  Patrick Arbore, a representative of The Friendship Line out of San Francisco. Arbore spoke to the task force from several northern counties at the Superior Region of the Suicide Prevention Network in Redding in June.

“It is so hard to get people to understand that aging and depression are not synonymous,” he said. “Older people become very lonely and isolated. They do not understand that they have depression, that it can be mitigated, remediated.”

It is important to let them know they are still part of the community, he said.

The Friendship Line, which operates on a budget of $5,000 a year, and bills itself as “a caring response to older adults in need,” is part of the Center for Elderly Suicide Prevention, a San Francisco-based program that provides support to at-risk seniors, family members and their advocates, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

It is more than just a phone line and a warm, understanding voice. It also provides medication reminders, well-being checks and information and referrals. The number is 1-1-800-971-0016.

Arbore is willing to make presentations to groups of elderly people, including at senior housing facilities.

Bill Siemer grew up on a farm in Lassen County, played basketball at Shasta JC, went to Vietnam, became a newspaper reporter and then a lawyer and now considers himself a champion of the story that needs to be told. He lives on the bank of the river and takes pictures.