After two years of declining suicides, Columbia County has experienced a sharp increase in the first few months of 2020.
There were seven suicides within the months of January and February, and by March the county had surpassed all of the suicides in 2019, according to Columbia Health Services Suicide Prevention Coordinator Sarah Trejo.
The numbers have left mental health care workers in Columbia County grappling for answers. While there are no definite reasons, Trejo said there seems to be a worldwide trend with suicides spiking in February and March, which could be weather-related.
All of the increasing suicides in Columbia County were middle-aged to elderly men, Trejo said. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), middle-aged white men account for the demographic with the highest suicide rate.
The trend is something that a task force, made up of community members, Columbia Pacific CCO, Columbia Health Services, Columbia Community Mental Health, local schools, and suicide survivors and other community leaders, is attempting to address.
According to CCMH Crisis Team Clinical Supervisor David Flynn, the task force addresses suicide in a myriad of ways, through “training, education, community meeting, community partnering, and reducing stigma. We bring together a variety of different perspectives and stake holders. This includes people with lived experience – those who have survived a suicide attempt or whose loved one completed suicide – as well as a variety of professionals and community members who are passionate about this issue,” Flynn said.
Task force review
Columbia Health Services Director Sherrie Ford put together the task force in 2018 in response to the rise in suicides. The task force was composed of groups and individuals with an interest in preventing suicide, from law enforcement, to teachers, to suicide survivors, to “anyone interested in suicide prevention as a whole,” Trejo said.
After the task force was created, Ford put together a grant proposal to Columbia Pacific CCO and requested that they fund a five-year position for suicide prevention, according to Trejo.
That is now Trejo’s position, one that she has held for the past five months. As of now, the position is on a two-year contract, but she is hoping the contract will be extended to at least five years so they can continue the work that they have been doing.
Different community partners have collected statistics on the social problem of suicide over the past several years. According to
those statistics, Columbia County saw an all-time high suicide completion number of 18 in 2018. In 2017, there were 12 suicides. In 2016 there were 15 suicides. 2019 saw an all-time low of seven suicides. However, that number crept back up in 2020, with the number in March surpassing all of 2019 suicides.
This is on par with national statistics. According to the CDC, the age-adjusted suicide rate increased by 33 percent from 1999 to 2017.
In preventing suicide, Trejo described her role as being one of education.
As the suicide prevention coordinator, Trejo leads frequent “QPR” trainings, which stands for “Question,” “Persuade,” “Refer.” These trainings can take place at multiple different settings, from businesses to schools. Trejo said Columbia Health Services is trying to implement the trainings in general as part of the hiring process. In the time of COVID-19, the trainings have been done online through Zoom.
During these trainings, Trejo said she teaches people that if someone’s mood has changed or if someone is looking depressed, or if they have had a lot of really large life events, such as losing a loved one, it’s important to recognize those factors and not be afraid to ask direct questions if they are considering taking their own life.
“You cannot put the thought of suicide into someone’s head,” Trejo said. “Either they’re thinking about it or they’re not. It’s better to ask someone and get them resources to get help.”
Trejo said she has a list of resources she uses to refer people to get the help they need. One of those resources is a crisis team in Columbia County.
“Our training goes over recognizing potential signs. The more large events that have happened in someone’s life, the more likely they are to have thoughts of suicide. When you ask someone if they’re having suicidal thoughts, it’s actually a huge relief. Even if they’re not having those thoughts, it’s communication,” Trejo said.
The task force also offers a more intensive suicide prevention training called ASIST, which stands for Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training. According to its website, it is a two-day intensive course for caregivers to help them recognize suicide risk, and how to take action if necessary.
In addition to ASIST and QPR trainings, other resources to reach out to the community include awareness efforts like the Out of the Darkness walk in Columbia County each year, which raises awareness for suicide prevention. There is also the Connect St. Helens program, launched last year, which aims to create more inter-connectedness within the community, a mitigating factor against suicide, according to Trejo.
A postvention suicide program also exists, which involves providing support to those affected by suicide in its aftermath. In order to do that, Trejo said that community partners like CCMH and CHS are trying to work with law enforcement so that they can communicate with the CCMH crisis team so that they can get to the scene of a suicide and be a presence of support.
That postvention plan has not always been successful, according to Trejo.
“We keep hitting this barrier where we can’t seem to find someone from the scene to call the crisis line. We’re trying to get CCMH on the scene, we’re struggling there, and having challenges to find the right way to do that, to do postvention support,” Trejo said.
She added the postvention plan will take a little bit more time, effort and communication.
“Our law enforcement is doing so much right now, and we’re trying to add one more thing to do on the scene, we’re trying to figure that one out,” she said.
COVID-19 is also a concern for the individuals trying to prevent suicide in Columbia County. According to Trejo, evidence shows suicides do not increase during the pandemic, but might rise as things start to head back to normal.
“We’re going to help people know that there’s services available to community members, and start preparing for the possibility of that occurring,” Trejo said.
The most important parts of suicide prevention plan are protective factors, according to Trejo.
“Having a team around an individual,” Trejo said. “The more people you have working towards keeping someone safe. The more people that know QPR. We compare it to CPR, when someone has a heart attack. The chance of that person to survive, it increases exponentially. If you know how to ask the question, you can help that person before they get to the point where they’re taking their own lives.”
The Centers for Disease Control and prevention (CDC) data shows that suicide was the leading cause of death among Oregon youth ages 10 to 24 in 2018, up from the second leading cause of death in 2017.
The CDC reports that Oregon is now ranked 11th highest in the nation for youth suicide death rates, up from 17th in 2017.
The CDC data also shows that suicide is the 10th leading cause of death for all ages in the United States. Suicide is a major contributor to premature mortality as it ranks as the second leading cause of death for ages 10–34 and the fourth leading cause for ages 35–54.
Despite national goals to lower the suicide rate, several recent reports have documented a steady increase in suicide rates in recent years.
If you are interested in joining the Suicide Prevention Task Force visit, https://www.columbia-health.org/suicide.html
If you are struggling with thoughts of suicide, CRISIS SERVICES are available 24/7 at CCMH: 503-782-4499 or TTY 711. You can also call 911.