Officials explore whether recent suicides signal trend

By Sarah Nelson Posted Apr 22, 2020 at 8:15PM

More than one month into coronavirus-related changes that have upended normal life, area residents have leaned heavily on Alachua County’s mental health and crisis services in uncertain — and for some, seemingly hopeless — times.

But in the past week, what some first responders say appears to be a sudden flare-up in suicides has sparked talks over how to handle the public’s long-term mental health needs.

While data from Gainesville police show nearly identical numbers of suicide attempts compared to this point last year, Gainesville Fire Rescue officials say they have responded to four or five calls in the past couple weeks in which residents appeared to have taken their own lives.

But whether the cases represent a COVID-19-related anomaly or a trend, they don’t know.

“We’re trying to look at the data and see if the data supports that. What we’re seeing in the short term seems to be a trend,” said Joanna Rice, deputy fire chief at GFR.

Finding the exact number of suicides is not as easy as a quick search in the agency’s database, she said, because the case may be classified differently, such as an accidental death or overdose.

“There’s not a category that goes in and says how many suicides we have,” she explained.

Art Forgey from the Sheriff’s Office, said his agency would initially classify a suicide as a death investigation, but does not have a breakdown for how many of the death cases are a result of suicide.

He said the Sheriff’s Office would have to sift through reports by hand to determine that number, though a suicide attempt would likely be entered as a Baker Act, or when law enforcement takes someone deemed a danger to themselves or others for a mental health examination.

So far this month, deputies have handled 29 Baker Act cases.

But the city and county’s emergency services don’t want a trend to start and are weighing ways to address the public’s mental health needs, Rice said.

Claudia Tuck, Alachua County’s community support services director, said local government officials are in talks to determine the area’s unique needs during the pandemic.

The latest data from the state’s health department shows 42 people died from suicide in Alachua County in 2018. The county’s suicide rate that year was 16.5 per 100,000 residents, slightly above the state’s rate of 15.3.

Officials from the mental health treatment organization Meridian Behavioral Healthcare say the system has seen 10 times as many virtual visits through its telehealth line since March 13, while maintaining the same number of in-person visits.

“During times of uncertainty, like this crisis, it isn’t unusual for people to experience stress, anxiety, depression, and/or other mental health challenges,” said Joy Riddle, Meridian spokeswoman. “It is important for people to try to stay connected socially while being physically distanced.”

Tuck added the 24-hour county’s crisis center number, 352-264-6789, is one of the many available resources for those experiencing mental distress.

One Gainesville resident says one way to help ease the anxiety is for the public to remember that strict pandemic measures are only temporary, and to stay hopeful for the time that day-to-day life returns to normal.

“One thing we can’t do is let go of hope,” said Kelly Lynch, whose ex-boyfriend died unexpectedly on April 11.

The CDC says some, but not all, of the warning signs for suicide include someone who isolates themselves, expresses hopelessness or feeling like a burden, makes plans to kill themselves, talks about wanting to die, has increased rage or extreme mood swings.

The National Suicide Hotline is 1-800-784-2433. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. For Spanish speakers, the number for the Nacional de Prevencion del Suicidio is 1-888-628-9454.

The NAMI/Gainesville number is 352-335-7770.

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