2017-07-30 / Insight

Despite better economy, suicides on the rise

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Dr. Russell Bush, deputy medical examiner at Lapeer County Health Department, is part of the office that determines cause of death in Lapeer County. At its current rate, 2017 is projected to be one of the worst years for suicide in recent memory, says Dr. Bush. 
Photo by Nicholas Pugliese Dr. Russell Bush, deputy medical examiner at Lapeer County Health Department, is part of the office that determines cause of death in Lapeer County. At its current rate, 2017 is projected to be one of the worst years for suicide in recent memory, says Dr. Bush. Photo by Nicholas Pugliese LAPEER COUNTY — Around 2008, as the economy was in the throes of a downturn later referred to as the “Great Recession,” medical professionals like Dr. Russell Bush, deputy medical examiner for Lapeer County, noticed a disturbing trend. As foreclosures, divorces and job loss figures were on the rise, so too were deaths by suicide nationally as well as in Lapeer County.

While national suicide statistics are collected and published by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Dr. Bush’s office began recording statistics related to yearly suicide cases in Lapeer County in 2011, and immediately noted a sharp increase in suicide-related deaths.

“We were at six or seven cases a year, then eight or nine, and it keeps rising,” said Bush. “It was at that time we took notice that it’s a trend.”

According to figures compiled by the Lapeer County Medical Examiner’s Office, there were 16 deaths by suicide in Lapeer County in 2011, followed by 19 in 2012. Though the number of suicides have leveled off — even dipped slightly — since then, 2017 projects to be one of the worst years since Dr. Bush’s office began recording the statistics. Nine deaths in Lapeer County have been attributed to suicide in Lapeer County this year, which means that if trends continue, 2017 might surpass 2012 in the number of deaths by suicide.

“All suicides fall under the medical examiner’s office, so anyone that dies by suicide, we see,” said Bush. “We’re responsible for the death certificate and we’re able to attribute a death to one of five causes — homicide, suicide, accident, natural causes or indeterminate causes.” According to Bush, many deaths that might rightly be suicide could be attributed to accident or indeterminate causes, meaning the number of suicides in Lapeer County yearly are likely higher than Bush’s figures note. “When we look at suicide in Lapeer County, those are the ones we know are suicide,” he said. “Some percentage of accident or indeterminable causes are actually likely suicide.”

While the upward trend in deaths by suicide began in 2008, around the beginning of the Great Recession, Bush notes that though the economy has recovered, suicide deaths continue to climb. “The upward trend started about the same time the economy took its nose dive. Did it trigger something? It probably played a part,” he said. “But suicide is actually very complex, and there could be a litany of reasons people might look toward suicide as an alternative.” Around the time of the Great Recession, people were losing homes, jobs and marriages, but in recent times, the economy has become more stable. Suicides, however, have not followed the same trajectory.

“We’re still looking at the same age group (30-60 year olds), and the economy is better, so what is it now?” Bush said. “Most of those things we might have thought were major influencers are better, so why does it keep happening?”

Every case is unique, but in some respects each is also similar. “Depression is a big factor, and while everyone experiences depression at some point, circumstances might make that level of depression more or less,” Bush said. The stigma placed on seeking treatment for mental health issues like depression might contribute to a vast amount of treatable cases going unattended.

“There’s a big stigma in getting treatment for mental health diagnoses,” said Bush. “Nobody wants to be told they’re crazy, but very few mental issues are actually considered ‘crazy.’”

Bush notes that while that stigma seems to slowly getting better — due in large part to a greater awareness of mental health issues in general — it still remains, and many issues that might lead to suicide are being ignored. “Depression is a connection,” said Bush. “Health, money, relationships — suicide is related to loss.”

According to Bush, most depression that is diagnosed and treated is done so by a person’s primary care physician or family doctor, and frequently with medication. “Some people aren’t willing to go to a mental health practice and end up with medication. From a statistical standpoint, most depression is treated by a primary care physician,” said Bush. “A lot of folks get better with meds, but some don’t really need meds, they need someone to talk to, and drugs won’t solve their problems. But having access to good mental health services can help a person solve their problems for themselves.”

Depression might also be a factor in the increase in opioid drug use in Lapeer County and nationally. “I think they’re related. Living nowadays is a predisposition toward drug use,” said Bush. “We live in a very complex, hyper-reactive environment, with media 24/7 blasting all the bad things that happen in the world. If a person is unwilling or unable to sort that out, many of these folks feel like escaping reality is a way to go. They don’t do it to be an addict, but they might not even realize (their drug use) is leading to dependence.”

To combat the upward trend in death by suicide, Bush and other medical professionals and city officials formed the Suicide Prevention Network. The group meets the second Friday of each month to discuss methods of raising awareness locally for mental health and suicide, and to organize various events in the area. “From a planning standpoint, we’re always looking for opportunity to raise awareness, but the real problem is what can you do about it? We can do all the presentations, but what can we actually do about it?” said Bush. “Treatment is needed. We need to get people actually interested in seeking treatment, we need the resources to administer that treatment and we need the resources to reintegrate people back into their lives. Raising awareness is actually the easiest part.”

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