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Marin County reports decline in suicides
Marin Independent Journal - 9/22/2022
Sep. 22—More than two years after Marin County supervisors approved a plan to prevent suicides, the number has come down slightly.
Mental health officials are hesitant to assign a cause for the improvement.
"Locally, we've observed decreasing rates of suicide in the past five years, and we're focused on our goal of zero suicides in Marin County," Todd Schirmer, interim director of county's behavioral health division, told the Board of Supervisors.
Schirmer provided supervisors last week with an annual report on the progress made in addressing suicide. The effort to create the plan was launched after three Marin high school students died by suicide within the same month in December 2017.
In 2018, Monica Whooley, the mother of one of the students, Gabriel Whooley, made an impassioned plea to supervisors to take action.
The county recorded 34 suicides in 2020, and in 2021, the most recent full year for which data are available, there were 29. However, the number of suicides in the county dropped more dramatically before the county plan was adopted, falling from 46 in 2019.
Prior to that, the number of suicides in Marin dropped from 47 in 2016 to 37 in 2018, before shooting back up a year later.
"I don't have any thoughts on why the overall trend is declining," Schirmer said.
One thing that hasn't changed since the county plan was approved: White men between the ages of 40 and 69 remain the Marin residents at highest risk of suicide.
According to the county's public health office, men accounted for 77% of the suicides in Marin from 2019 to 2021, up from 74% from 2014 to 2018.
Ninety-two of the 109 people who committed suicide in Marin from 2019 to 2021 were non-Hispanic White residents, and more than 62% percent of the 109 were White men.
Half of suicides in Marin from 2010 to 2021 involved people between the ages of 40 and 69. Twenty-one percent were 50 to 59.
The data on Marin suicides also show that veterans are at particular risk. Of the 85 men who committed suicide in Marin from 2019 to 2021, at least 15, or 17.6%, were veterans.
As part of its effort to address suicide, the county has formed eight "community action teams." Each specializes in an area such as schools, data, communications, "men and boys" and "postvention."
"We are seeing higher rates of death by suicide for middle-aged and older men," Schirmer said. "That is the reason that we have an action team specifically focused on men and boys."
Schirmer said the purpose of the men-and-boys team is to raise public awareness of the risk to this group; to develop structures for people to ask for support; and to provide peer support.
William Spence Casey, a social worker with the county veterans services office and one of the leaders of the men-and-boys team, said, "We want to normalize the notion that no matter who you are, what the color of your skin is, or what culture you come from, we all confront existential challenges and times when circumstances might be very difficult."
"My remedy to that is to break down isolation and build a support system," Casey said. "If you don't have one, start working on one, whether it is family or friends."
The men-and-boys team is planning a hike at Bon Tempe Lake at 10 a.m. Sunday. Registration and additional details are available online at bit.ly/3UwyHhj.
A community guide to suicide prevention and support that the county recently published, titled "From Compassion to Action," states that cultural, social and religious beliefs can prevent people at risk for suicide from seeking help.
"Social and cultural influences can impact beliefs about what it means to 'be a man,' contributing to disproportionate risk among military members and veterans, and men and boys across the lifespan," the booklet says.
"We know that racism and discrimination are risk factors for suicide, and increased rates of suicide among marginalized groups highlights the role that inequities and systemic oppression play in a person's life," it says.
According to the public health office, White residents in Marin accounted for nearly 86% of the county's suicides from 2019 to 2021 while comprising about 71% of the county's population.
Black residents accounted for 3.8% of the suicides during this period while comprising 2.1% of the county's population. Latino residents accounted for 8.5% during those three years while accounting for about 16% of the county's population. Asian and Pacific Islander residents accounted for less than 1% while comprising 5.7% of the county.
The "postvention" team gets its name from a word coined by the American psychologist Edwin Shneidman to describe an intervention following a suicide that is aimed at supporting the bereaved. Shneidman said "the largest public health problem is neither the prevention of suicide nor the management of suicide attempts, but the alleviation of the effects of stress in the survivors whose lives are forever altered."
Two Marin women whose sons committed suicide, and who serve on Marin's Local Outreach to Suicide Survivors team, spoke passionately during the meeting about what serving on the team has meant to them.
"This work has been life-saving for me," said Kate Ruehle, whose son died by suicide on Feb. 8, 2019. "It's given me new purpose and hope."
Sophia Balestreri said she felt a complete loss of hope after losing her oldest son, Christopher Page Snowden, to suicide in 2009.
"I couldn't imagine my life beyond my next breath," Balestreri said. "What I really needed the most was to find someone who had suffered the same type of loss. I knew there was a language we shared that no one else understood."
"I'm motivated today by helping others in their journey and speaking openly about suicide loss," Balestreri said.
The Marin County suicide prevention hotline is 415-499-1100.
(c)2022 The Marin Independent Journal (Novato, Calif.)
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