Suicides in Douglas County
- Chat about suicide prevention with Marcia Epstein (July 16 at 1:30 p.m.)
- Parts of memorial close after death at tower (07-11-07)
- Suicide victim found at Wells Overlook (07-10-07)
- Witnesses speak about man hit by train (07-10-07)
- Pedestrian survives encounter with train (07-09-07)
- Lawrence man injured by train in attempted suicide (07-08-07)
- Fingerprint used to identify body (06-28-07)
- Police ID body as nearby resident (06-27-07)
- Police investigating dead body found near KU campus (06-20-07)
- Body near campus poses mystery to police (06-19-07)
A 54-year-old man is found hanging by his neck in a Lawrence storage shed.
A 29-year-old Lawrence man tries to kill himself on the railroad tracks in North Lawrence.
A man in his 20s kills himself at Wells Overlook Park south of Lawrence.
A 30-something man jumps to his death from Liberty Memorial in Kansas City, Mo.
This recent rash of public suicides and suicide attempts concerns Marcia Epstein, who, as director of Headquarters Counseling Center in Lawrence, works to help avoid such tragedies. Headquarters offers education, counseling and services 24 hours a day.
"The truth is there are more suicide deaths than homicide deaths in the country," Epstein said. "It's something that happens so much more, and we need to make a difference."
So far this year, eight people have killed themselves in Douglas County; there have been no homicides. Last year in the county, 20 people killed themselves, and two people were murdered.
Nationwide, about 32,000 people kill themselves annually, compared with about 17,000 homicides.
"Suicide accounts for 54 percent of the violent deaths around the globe," said Jerry Reed, executive director of the Suicide Prevention Action Network USA. "Suicide is a tremendously important and under-recognized public health problem in this country and on the planet."
In the past several years, the total number of people who killed themselves each year in Douglas County has been closer to 13 - the number reported in 2005.
"It's frightening," Epstein said of the recent increase.
Epstein said there are no easy answers as to why people pick up a gun, hang themselves or jump into a train's path.
"If there was an absolute checklist that said these people are at risk of suicide and these people aren't, we would be using it across the country," she said. "But there's nothing like that. It's individual people and their abilities to tolerate different things going on in their life."
What she does know is that suicides affect many, many lives.
"They are somebody's mom or dad or husband or wife or son or daughter or girlfriend," Epstein said. "There are all of these family members and co-workers and old friends and acquaintances. There are so many people who are affected when somebody dies."
John Weatherwax, a retired Lawrence accountant, knows what that's like. He believes his friend Ron Holt, who was a successful Lawrence developer and contractor, had trouble dealing with the death of his wife.
"I know he missed his wife very much," he said.
Weatherwax offered to take him to lunch whenever he needed support but said he didn't recognize how serious Holt's depression was and never expected he would take his own life in August 2002 at age 64.
"I felt pretty bad after he did commit suicide that I hadn't been more aware of how desperate he was," Weatherwax said. "I could tell his mind was far away on something else, but I wasn't smart enough to see that it was a dangerous sign."
Weatherwax, 86, urges people who are depressed to seek help.
"I've never had a suicidal thought in my head, and I hope I never do because I don't believe it is the solution to anything. I think it causes more problems usually for the remaining people than it helps anything. It sure doesn't solve anything - in my book."
Lack of services
Like Weatherwax, Epstein hopes those who are depressed seek help. And while there are services available, she said more needs to be done.
"It's great and important and essential that we are here all of the time, but our community, like communities all across the country, needs more emphasis on mental health services and more clinicians who are available so that people can see somebody quickly," she said.
She said depression is a complicated issue. Oftentimes, a person needs more than a few counseling sessions. Epstein said those with ongoing depression likely need intense therapy and medication. Lawrence offers many free, affordable counseling services, but there are few centers that have a psychiatrist who can prescribe medicine.
"There are a lot of resources and, still, I am going to tell you that there are not enough," she said.
The only affordable community-based center that has psychiatrists who can prescribe drugs is Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, she said.
"That's bad because it takes a long time sometimes to get into Bert Nash, for a lot of reasons, such as funding and staffing," she said. "So you have people who need something, and it's going to take them awhile to get it."
Reed, of Suicide Prevention, said such gaps exist nationwide.
"We do not have equality in terms of the benefits provided for physical health and mental health," he said. "That is a barrier."
He doesn't have to look any further than the nation's Medicare program to find an example.
"The highest rate of suicide in this country is older men, and yet our Medicare program requires a 50 percent co-payment for mental health services where they only require a 20 percent co-payment for physical health services," Reed said. "So what's the message?"
A local advocate for the mentally ill would like to see more done in Lawrence and puts some blame on Lawrence Memorial Hospital, which generated revenues that were $10.3 million greater than its expenses in 2006. Although LMH is undergoing a $45 million expansion of the hospital, it closed an inpatient mental health unit in 2004.
"We are all so proud of our Lawrence Memorial Hospital and how strong it is and the continued success of (CEO) Gene Meyer, but I would be the first to ask the question, 'Where are we going with LMH?' because it is supposed to be a community hospital and truly serve the community on all levels," said Alan Miller, who is a member of the state chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness and whose son has mental illness.
"Gene has stated that he is not interested in doing a facility for the mentally ill unless he can do it as a first-class operation - and I think that is a cop-out," Miller said.
But Janice Early-Weas, director of community relations for the hospital, said economics didn't factor into the decision to close the LMH unit.
"What was behind the closure of our inpatient mental health unit was a lack of providers in this community," she said. "There are no psychiatrists who will admit and provide inpatient treatment. So money had nothing to do with it."
When LMH closed its unit, it was serving an average of fewer than two patients per day, though it only was accepting patients ages 55 and older. But when it served all ages, it had about eight patients per day as recently as 2002.
"I think probably the reason that there aren't psychiatrists practicing inpatient mental health services in our community is because Lawrence's population isn't large enough to support a quality program," Early-Weas said.
Miller said even if the numbers weren't there when the inpatient unit closed, they soon will be because of the soldiers who will be returning from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Reed said new data show that one in five suicides is a veteran, so the nation should be working to find help for those who are serving the country.
But help is hard to come by because of the challenges that organizations such as his and Headquarters Counseling face, including a lack of data and research. Reed said it is estimated that 1.4 million people attempt to kill themselves each year, but he believes the number is greater.
Seventeen states are participating in a new National Violent Death Reporting system to provide information such as statistics on veterans. Kansas is not among the states.
Reed also said there needs to be research, but funding is hard to come by.
"We have to be serious about wanting to save lives," he said.
While there are barriers to getting treatment, Epstein reminds those in need to use the resources available.
"If they call us, not only do we do the counseling, but we've got information about the different kinds of mental health services around and information on private therapists," she said. "They can always start with us, and we can make a huge difference in a crisis."
Early-Weas also pointed out LMH's emergency department services. "Any individual who is in need of crisis stabilization services can come to the LMH emergency department 24 hours a day for help," she said.