LITTLE ROCK — Suicide in Arkansas has risen significantly in the past decade, especially in the 35-65-year-old age group, and the state is stepping up its efforts to combat the growing problem.
Experts say there are a number of factors for the increase, including the economic downturn, which left many worrying about their jobs and future. They also point to some studies that suggest that suicide rates are higher in states with few or no gun regulations.
"I don’t like to talk about suicide … being an epidemic, because then people tune you out, saying that’s another alarmist report, but it’s a serious problem," said Dr. Erick Messias, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and medical director of the Walker Family Clinic of Psychiatric Research Institute.
"It’s a very tragic event that affects many, many people," he said.
Officials with the state Department of Human Services said last week they are stepping up state suicide prevention programs and that a coalition of about 65 regional suicide prevention groups, along with businesses and individuals, recently started meeting to try and address the issue and make sure prevention protocols have been updated.
"The goal is really to assess what we have today and determine whether there are gaps and if so, where those gaps in service are and move quickly so we can go about addressing them," said DHS spokeswoman Amy Webb.
A crisis hot line is available day and night, as is a website with a chat room where people can join conversations anonymously, said Faith Henry, the state suicide prevention coordinator
The 15 Community Mental Health Centers across the state also are available with services and care. There are medical doctors and counselors for appointments and a there are a number of faith-based programs available at churches.
"Obviously many people have depression and we have the most effective treatments for people diagnosed with depression," said Lynn Kell, a clinical social worker with the division of behavioral health services. "But oftentimes those people are not the ones seeking help until something like this occurs."
A report for the Centers for Disease Control last month found there were 144 suicides among the 35-65 age group in Arkansas in 1999, which equals to a rate of 14.8 suicides per 100,000 population. The number of suicides in the same age group rose to 22.8 per 100,000 in 2010, an increase of 54.2 percent over the 10-year period.
Nationally, for same age group, the suicide rate rose 28.4 percent during the same decade, from 13.7 per 100,000 in 1999 to 17.6 percent in 2010.
Overall, Arkansas’ suicide rate rose 18.94 percent from 1999 to 2010, compared to a 15.8 percent nationally. The state ranked 15th nationally in 2010 for the number of suicides per 100,000 population, with Wyoming ranked number one.
The CDC report said a "possible contributing factor" in the rise in suicide rates among middle-aged adults between 1999 and 2010 was the economic downturn and new challenges faced by the 35-64 age group.
"Historically, suicide rates tend to correlate with business cycles, with higher rates observed during times of economic hardship," the report said.
Many in that age age group lost their jobs, or had their hours downsized, some faced foreclosures and some saw their retirement savings vanish as the stock market dropped, Messias said, adding that many in that age group also were feeling extra pressure because they were caring for their children and their parents at the same time.
"That’s always called the sandwich generation because they take care of their parents, but they also try to take care of their children," he said. "There’s a lot of pressure on that group and that group feels the most pressure during economic uncertainty. The elderly folks have their retirement and Social Security, it’s safe, it’s going to be there, and the young group is in college working on education and just starting out."
The CDC report said that the majority of those who commit suicide are men and about 55 percent of all suicides are committed with firearms.
In 2010, more people committed suicide with firearms — 19,392 — than were murdered with guns — 8,874, according to the CDC. In Arkansas, firearms were used in 93 of the 130 murders committed in 2010, according to the FBI, while there were 447 suicides in the state that year, including 266 by firearms.
And while the economic downturn is seen by many to be a top reason for the rise in suicides, Messias said the prevalence of guns is not helping.
He said "there is some evidence" to indicate that states with fewer gun regulations have higher rates of suicide.
In April, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health released a study showing that suicides are twice as high in states with few or no gun regulations and high rates of household gun ownership.
Massachusetts, which has the most restrictive guns laws in the nation and the lowest rate of household gun ownership had the lowest suicide rate.
The Arkansas Legislature this year passed several laws easing gun restrictions.
"Yes, there is a relationship, there is a strong relationship between the restrictions and a correlation between the gun laws that make people wait, the waiting period, and suicide rates," Messais said.
He said states with few or no gun regulations tend to be more rural, have smaller populations and fewer mental health services readily available.
"I want people when they discuss gun laws to remember that suicide is part of the discussion and we need to remember that most gun violence, unfortunately, is done by people taking their own life," he said.
Bari Nahas of North Little Rock, who lost her 45-year-old husband Michael to gun suicide in April, said last week that he suffered from a number of stressers and had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
"There is a stigma on mental health and I don’t think he wanted to believe that he was bipolar," Nahas said. "You have insurance for mental health, it’s a disease like anything else."
She said her husband liked to hunt and last year she removed all the weapons from their home because of concerns for his well-being. After a failed suicide attempt late last year with pills, he apparently decided to use a gun the next time and was able to retrieve one of the weapons.
Messias said that most suicide attempts with pills fail because people end up getting sick first.
Henry said DHS’ Division of Behavioral Health "has recognized that suicide is a public health issue in the state of Arkansas" and a number of programs and services are available.
Along with the 24-hour crisis hot line and the crisis website, a number of nonprofits raise money for suicide awareness and prevention services.
The division also has designated a staff person to coordinate and facilitate a statewide suicide prevention initiative. Henry said that person is working with a coalition of 65 foundations, organizations, agencies, professionals, individuals, and consumers who are interested in suicide prevention and intervention."
The state’s five-year-old suicide prevention program has been rewritten "and made congruent with the national strategies that just were issued this past year," she said.
"We’re actually putting together our goals and objectives and our work plan and putting names with the responsibility parties so we can build a safety net across Arkansas," she said.
Arkansas Crisis Center hot line number is 1-888-274-7472
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