10/20/2014

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Field Notes

Police report paints grim picture of suicide in Portland

You know the old expression about the numbers speaking for themselves?

From April 2011 through June 2013, 202 people in Portland committed suicide. That’s roughly 34.4 people per 100,000, or three times the national rate, according to a report issued by the Portland Police Bureau.

Another way to look at that is there were approximately 7.5 suicides a month, or one every four days.

There were nearly twice as many suicides as homicides and traffic fatalities combined.

Who is it that is committing suicide?

Overwhelmingly, the answer is white men. Of the 202 suicides, 149 were white men. After that were white women – 28. A look at other races – Asian, African-American and Hispanic – is split mostly equally among men and women and not a single category had suicides totaling in double digits.

During the time period not a single Hispanic woman committed suicide.

The study also found that, more often than not, people committed suicide during the summer months.

June was the most brutal with an average of 10.3 suicides, followed by September with 9 suicides. November and December, times usually believed to be filled with depression and suicide, were actually the least deadly with averages of 4 and 4.4 suicides a month, respectively.

The oldest person to commit suicide during this period was 89. The youngest was 10.

As striking as some of these numbers are, the fact is that numbers do not speak for themselves.

This all comes from a new analysis of police numbers that the bureau is releasing at a news conference Monday. Police officials will be joined by mental health professionals from groups like Cascadia Behavioral Health.

The message is to let people know that suicide is preventable and there are options for help available. Always.

Suicides take a tremendous toll on the city in many ways.

It’s easy to look at the standard lines about those left behind, grieving families and friends struggling to understand.

There’s more to it than that.

On a very clinical level, a cold assessment, there’s also the productivity lost to the city and issues like the mere cost of responding to the calls.

The 202 completed suicides in that period are just a fraction of the number of suicide and attempted suicide calls the bureau responds to every year.

By 2011, they were responding to some 1,200 calls a year – almost four a day. And it’s a situation that has steadily gotten worse over the years. Back in 2001, the number stood just over 600.

Each call requires police officers and often firefighters and ambulances responding. If there has been a completed suicide, officers will have to stay and wait for the medical examiner. People will often be needed for cleaning up (itself a very expensive process).

Experts point to a variety of factors: the problems with the economy – while unemployment has not gotten worse, it also has not gotten better - the increase in Portland’s homeless population and changes in how people with mental illnesses are treated (or not treated).

Part of the problem has been that we have turned police officers into front-line social workers. For them, it’s no longer just a question of keeping people safe from crime - we are asking them to keep us safe from ourselves.

From every level of government, the response has been the same in recent years – cut services to those with mental illness. Hospital beds have been cut back, funding for clinics has been slashed.

There was a rare turnaround earlier this year when Mayor Charlie Hales proposed eliminating the city’s portion of funding for the Crisis Assessment and Treatment Center that it runs with  Multnomah County. After much protest, the city backed down and the center is still there.

Still, it’s largely police officers out there every day trying to stop people from hurting themselves and others.

There have been some notable failures but most interaction between police officers and people with mental illness have resulted in the person getting help – at least temporarily.

In June, I told the story of Officer Tyrone Willard.

The seven-year veteran of the force was out on patrol when he heard dispatch announce there was a man climbing the Glisan overpass looking to jump onto I-205.

Willard was able to stop the man, who later thanked him.

“It’s not my time to go,” the man told the officer.

We don’t hear a lot about those stories, but they happen every day.

The bureau – in part from prodding by the Justice Department – has recently created two units to respond to people with mental health issues: the Enhanced Crisis Intervention Team and the Behavioral Health Coordination Team.

These are significant steps but they only sidestep the larger problem.

Cops are not social workers, nor should they be expected to be so on a regular basis. It would be nice if the largest problem an officer has to deal with on any given day is someone looking to commit suicide. But it’s not the world we live in.

Every day across Portland, people are thinking about suicide.

Six calls a day to 911 are people looking to commit suicide. Scores more are calls asking for welfare checks, which are often family and friends of people who haven’t heard from someone in a little bit too long.

We need to do a better job looking out for those we know.

“Am I my brother’s keeper?” some ask flippantly, forgetting that the answer to that question is yes.

We need to let people know there are numbers to call, places to go, people willing to listen, willing to help.

Every four days someone in Portland commits suicide.

Enough is enough. 

Available resources

If you or someone you know has suicidal thoughts or needs help, police say the following options are available:

  • The Multnomah County Crisis Line is available 24 hours a day at (503) 988-4888.
  • Lines for Life is available 24 hours a day at (503) 972-3456.
  • Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare has an urgent walk-in clinic open from 7:00 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., 7 days a week. Payment is not necessary. Call (503) 963-2575.
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