'Send Silence Packing' suicide prevention exhibit at UCCS

An exhibit called "Send Silence Packing" recently came to the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs campus to raise awareness about suicide and provide mental health resources. Photo by Debbie Kelley

Of Colorado’s 64 counties, El Paso led the state last year with the highest number of suicide deaths as well as the highest number of suicide deaths using a firearm, recently released statistics show.

“It means we’ve got a lot of work to do,” said Dr. Erik Wallace, a professor and associate dean of the University of Colorado School of Medicine branch in Colorado Springs.

“What is clear is when people are in a crisis, access to a firearm is a major contributor to a completed suicide.”

El Paso County recorded 180 deaths by suicide in 2019, up 18% from 152 in 2018 and the highest that Dr. Leon Kelly, county coroner, has tallied under his watch. More than half of last year's suicides were from self-inflicted gunshot wounds.

Even though El Paso is the state’s second most-populated county next to Denver County, its 2019 suicide rate per 100,000 in population was 13.9, compared with 10.5 statewide and 5.73 for Denver.

“It’s one of the increases that hurts the most to see,” said Kelly, who released the 2019 El Paso County Coroner’s Report last week.

The news is particularly disappointing given the energy, time and attention the community has spent on suicide prevention over the past several years, he said.

Males accounted for 79% of last year's suicides, with 40 being the average age at death. Nineteen percent were active or former military.

“We’re not going to move the needle much until we recognize that what we’re doing isn’t reaching and isn’t working for working-age males,” Kelly said.

In January 2019, then Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman called death by suicide a “public health crisis” in the state, in releasing a study that showed more Coloradans are dying by suicide than by homicide, motor vehicle crashes, diabetes or breast cancer.

Prevention efforts targeting school children seem to have paid off locally, after teen suicides hit a historic high in El Paso County in 2016 with 15 deaths. Nine El Paso County children under age 18 took their lives last year, compared with seven in 2018.

However, seven teens under 18 have died by suicide this year, Kelly said, three before the coronavirus pandemic hit in mid-March and four since.

“We’ve had a difficult start to this year already,” he said.

Total suicide deaths among all ages are down so far this year over last year, which Kelly calls “encouraging.”

As of Wednesday, 82 El Paso County residents died by self-inflicted means, compared with 100 this time last year, he said, showing mental health impacts of the coronavirus pandemic are not being reflected in suicide cases.

Teller County already has recorded 10 deaths by suicide this year, said Coroner Kayla Daugherty, compared with nine for all of 2019. One was under age 18, the same as last year.

“I was in a suicide epidemic before the pandemic ever started,” she said.

Six occurred before the pandemic and four since mid-March. But it's possible for Teller County to not have any more suicide deaths this year, Daugherty said, which would put the number in the average range of what the county normally sees.

The last suicide in 2019 in Teller County was on Aug. 18, and the next suicide didn’t happen until Jan. 23, she said.

“I am concerned about the suicide numbers,” Daugherty said, adding that she’s working with the Teller County Mental Health Alliance. “We’re actively discussing how we need to approach this.”.

A positive development, Daugherty said, is while the number of Teller County suicides have remained flat since 2014, with nine to 12 per year, the rate has decreased by 6% over the past five years.

Gunshot wounds continue to be the leading method for those who die at their own hands in both counties. More than 100 of El Paso County's suicides last year involved firearms.

To help improve the statistics, Wallace formed the El Paso County Firearm Safety Workgroup in 2018 to advocate for safe gun and ammunition storage.

Statistics show people who own firearms have higher rates of suicide, Wallace said, and the likelihood of dying from a suicide attempt using a gun is higher than by other means.

The nonpartisan think tank made up of representatives from public health, mental and physical health care, law enforcement, gun-rights groups and other sectors is working on creating effective safety messages to gun owners, to decrease the chance that people who are at risk of committing suicide with a gun will succeed.

Community leaders continue to study and provide new forms of mental health assistance for all ages, Kelly said, with numerous grant-funded programs.

The topic of mental health is being talked about more openly than I’ve ever seen,” he said.

Other highlights of the 2019 El Paso County and Teller County coroners’ reports:

• Homicides were down markedly, by 37.5%, last year in El Paso County. There were 35 homicides, of which six were officer-involved shootings. Fourteen were because of an argument or fight between people. Seven deaths resulted from domestic violence incidents.

• Decreases in overdoses of heroin in El Paso County were offset by increases in deaths by illicitly produced fentanyl. Accidental deaths from fentanyl, a potent opioid drug in pill form that is often masked to look like a different opioid, jumped to 21 in 2019, up from nine in 2018. Already this year, the county has had 17 fentanyl deaths, leading Kelly to direly predict a possible doubling of the amount of deaths this year over last year.

• Cardio-vascular disease was the largest natural-cause killer in both Teller and El Paso counties.

• The number of people who unexpectedly died while homeless in El Paso County was 56 in 2019, down from 61 in 2018. The overwhelming majority were white males, with an average age of 44. The main causes of death were drug intoxication, being hit by a vehicle as a pedestrian and hypothermia combined with alcohol or drug use.

• Nine infants in El Paso County died from asphyxia from unsafe sleeping surfaces or bed sharing with adults.

Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.

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