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October 25, 2014

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Economic plunge cited as factor in suicide rate increase

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The rate of suicides in Clark County jumped by 10 percent from 2007 to 2008, a rise that experts attribute in part to the recession.

The increase is one of the most dramatic in the history of Clark County, whose suicide rate even before 2008 ranked as one of the highest in the nation.

Many signs point to the economic bust as a factor, experts said.

“Those folks that were on the ragged edge to begin with are now on no edge at all, so they have nowhere to turn and are taking their lives because of it,” Clark County Coroner Michael Murphy said.

The reason a person kills himself is usually a mystery because the only person who knows is dead. Only about three in 10 people who commit suicide leave a note.

There are a number of reasons to explain the especially high suicide rate in Clark County, experts say. Many residents hail from elsewhere and lack family support networks. Building healthy friendships can be challenging here. Alcohol is in ready supply. Addictions are fueled by the culture. And the mental health support system can’t keep up with the demand.

The economy is emerging as a primary threat to the community’s mental health. Debt, evictions, foreclosures and unemployment are on the rise and there’s little respite from bleak economic news.

Murphy and the coroner investigators who go to suicide scenes increasingly find evidence of financial hardship, he said.

“You can literally see some of the signs of that in the residence,” Murphy said. “The house is in foreclosure or there are debt collection bills strewed around the house.”

In 2008, 383 people committed suicide in Clark County. The suicide rate increased from 17.5 per 100,000 to 19.3 per 100,000, according to the Sun’s analysis of data from the coroner’s office. By comparison, the national rate was about 11 per 100,000 in 2005, the most recent year for national data.

Matt Wray, an assistant professor of sociology at Temple University who taught at UNLV, said during recessions in the 1980s and 1990s, there was not a corresponding increase in the national suicide rate. But during the Great Depression, in the 1930s, there was an increase, from 14 to 17 per 100,000, according to government reports.

The suicide demographics don’t reveal many changes in 2008 compared with recent years.

The 2008 suicide rate increased in part because of nonresidents coming to Las Vegas and killing themselves. About 10 percent of the suicides in 2008 were nonresidents, according to the coroner’s data. That’s up from about 7 percent in 2007 and about 9 percent in 2006.

(One unanswerable “chicken and egg” question about suicides in Las Vegas is whether emotionally unstable people come here and kill themselves, or whether the city makes people unhealthy.)

People from 45 to 54 years old made up 23 percent of the suicides, the largest of any 10-year age range. The median age at the time of death was 48, and about four of the five suicides were men.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that the suicide rate was highest from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s, when it hovered at around 25 suicides per 100,000 people, and peaked in 1982 at more than 30 suicides per 100,000.

Wray said the high suicide rate raises broader concerns for the community, including the copycat effect involving people who know someone who committed suicide.

“A runaway suicide rate can have a chain reaction effect in the long term,” Wray said.

Many suicides are preventable if people can be connected with the right resources, Wray said. There are about 17 attempts for each successful suicide in Las Vegas, Wray said, and those who attempt suicide usually don’t usually succeed.

Part of the safety net includes the Crisis Call Center, a suicide hotline in Reno that takes calls statewide. The number of calls about money problems increased in February by 93 percent, to 236, compared with the same month a year earlier, according to the center’s data. The number of suicide calls that month doubled, to 303, from the same month the previous year.

“We’re seeing a lot more hopelessness because of the economy,” said Debbie Gant-Reed, crisis line coordinator.

Gant-Reed said more middle-class people are calling the hotline for the first time.

Some distressed callers were employed by the financial industry.

One mortgage broker told her he was at the end of his rope, in the field for 20 years and now unemployed.

“I’ve lost my job and I’m losing my house and I’m losing everything and I’m 55 years old,” she recalled the man saying.

Another caller, a financial adviser, said he tried to apply for a job at McDonald’s but they wouldn’t hire him because he couldn’t speak Spanish and they knew he wouldn’t stay in the job long term, Gant-Reed said. A large percentage of the people who call the hotline won’t seek mental health assistance, she said. The goal of hotline operators is to help desperate callers find a reason, such as their children, to forge ahead in life.

Luis Guevara, a clinical psychologist at the College of Southern Nevada, said he senses that the economy has caused a general malaise to fall upon the city. The growing demand for his services among the school’s students — most are 18 to 25 years old, he said — shows that it’s not just older adults thinking of suicide, he said. Students are depressed because they’re losing jobs, can’t find jobs, can’t pay the rent and in some cases struggle to afford food, he said.

Donna Wilburn, president of the Nevada Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, said the one unifying element of the economic bust is that people are not alone in their hardship. Sometimes that makes people feel better, she said. She recently counseled a client who said he felt better about his financial struggles because he knew others who were in a worse state.

“It does help normalize it when you know people in the same boat,” she said.

Marshall Allen can be reached at 259-2330 or at marshall

.[email protected]

Alex Richards can be reached

at 259-4085 or at alex.richards

@lasvegassun.com.

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