More than any other time of year, spring is a high-risk season for suicide. One local church experienced an unusually high cluster of suicides this year, and mental health professionals say that is cause for serious concern.
Jeff Dismukes, the director of communications for the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services (ODMHSAS), said a popular misconception exists that the holidays are the worst time of year.
"We see a bump in attempts every spring," Dismukes said. "People have extensive support groups around during the holidays in the form of family and friends, so the post-holiday period is always more difficult because those groups are gone."
At least four suicides have occurred in the past several months among the parishioners of Crossings Community Church, officials said. The cluster is atypical in a couple of ways, and ODMHSAS workers and church leaders are struggling to understand what is happening. The cluster has been among middle-aged, established men, including another Edmond-area suicide in the St. John the Baptist Catholic Church congregation.
Ron Mahn, the pastor of LifeCare Ministry, Crossings Community Church's counseling program, said the cluster at his church was related to the interruption of the support networks Dismukes referenced. Mahn said his church is aware of one attempt and two other suicides from individuals who were related to the congregation but not parishioners.
"We see things as systemic, as related to the family," Mahn said. "Each of these cases was somehow related to individuals in isolation from their family or their faith family. An interruption in their support network happened and that left them isolated, either really isolated or in perceived isolation."
Jessica Hawkins, the director of prevention services for ODMHSAS, said the cluster is troubling for a couple of reasons. First, the unexpected cluster highlights one of the obstacles with which her organization must contend, which is the delay in obtaining real-time numbers of actual attempts or completions (the preferred term to "successful suicide"). Second, suicide tends to have a clustering component in communities: One suicide can lead to multiple suicides " a reality with which Crossings is now grappling.
"Unlike other public health issues, suicide has a contagion effect," Hawkins said. "When we hear that a community has had multiple attempts or completions, the anecdotal information allows us to respond in a shorter time."
The anecdotal information is critical because the Oklahoma Office of the Chief Medical Examiner has a near constant backlog of cases to process, and that backlog means that actual numbers won't be released until sometime next year.
Annette Riley, the senior executive secretary at the Central Oklahoma Medical Examiner's office, said her office currently has approximately 140 confirmed suicides for Oklahoma for 2009, but those numbers don't include a backlog of cases. She also said that her office was nowhere near having total numbers for 2008 compiled.
Hawkins said the lag in reporting isn't unusual. "We typically don't get confirmed statistics for about a year and a half," she said. "That means we have to rely on anecdotal information to respond to clusters. The sooner we know, the sooner we can respond."
Hawkins said her organization responds by providing training and education for counselors, family members and other community members impacted by suicide attempts or completions.
Without real numbers, it is impossible to determine the causes of trends. Crossings is a moderately to highly affluent, white, suburban church in an affluent area of the metro. Mahn said those aren't the sort of descriptors one expects to find when discussing suicides.
"Affluence should breed emotional and financial security," he said, "but there are always multiple causes of suicide and multiple stressors on people. We've asked, 'What is different in May '09 from the way things were in May '08?' The obvious answer is the economy. Whether it has a direct impact on people's lives or just a spectator impact, it heightens all the stressors."
Hawkins said she, too, is concerned with how the economy is affecting people.
"Research indicates that people have multiple risk factors," she said. "We know there is a relationship between the economy, unemployment, financial concerns and suicide, but there are other risk factors involved as well."
Clustering is one of those risk factors.
"The second leading cause of death for youth in Oklahoma, aged 10 to 24, is suicide," she said. "Young people in cluster communities are at an even higher risk. But we also know that suicide is preventable. People who are contemplating suicide will typically tell people, and the people around them need to know what to do with the information."
Mahn said Crossings has implemented community-wide training and counseling for their parishioners. "We're helping people process their thoughts and emotions," he said. "Everyone is hyper-vigilant right now. The benefit of a large community is that we have lots of eyes, ears and mouths. We are proactively approaching individuals about this."
Both Hawkins and Dismukes said there is no indication that suicide numbers are higher so far this year, but both also emphasized the importance of communicating to people that help is available.
"We know that talking about this with at-risk people reduces the likelihood that they will attempt suicide," Hawkins said. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK.
"It's a toll-free number, but operators answer in the state where the call originates, so you're talking to someone close to home." "Greg Horton