The number of suicides in Pettis County is on the rise.
Already this year, Pettis County Coroner Robert “Skip” Smith said there have been at least 12. The suicide rate more than doubled between 2013 and 2014, from eight in 2012 and 2013 to 14 or 15 in 2014.
“There just seems to be a wide spectrum of reasons, but it’s definitely a growing concern,” Smith said. “We’re on a track to have over 25 if it continues like it’s going. We could have in the 20s this year, which is just unbelievable in my eyes.”
The numbers of reported suicides are ambiguous because the circumstances surrounding each death are equally ambiguous. For some deaths, Smith said they file them as accidents, but in their minds, it appears to be a suicide.
“We have several drug overdoses that are kind of borderline, and we give them the benefit of the doubt,” Smith said. “If someone has three or four different drugs in them and it’s out of sight, you have to look … would a reasonable person know that would be life-threatening? So we rule those as a suicide.
“At times it’s cut and dry. You have a note, or sometimes we look at people’s phones and can tell they were searching websites and ways to commit suicide. Sometimes you have to take what the surroundings are and what the evidence shows you.”
The age range of suicide victims spans from age 15 to people in their 80s, and causes are equally varied.
“Some are health-related, some are emotional situations,” Smith said. “Over the last two years, we’ve had a lot of health-related suicides, so it’s been kind of unusual. Last year was high, but this year has been unbelievable.”
Pettis County Sheriff Kevin Bond said they have seen an increase in suicides especially in the last couple months. The number of people with mental illness has also increased in the jail population.
“We usually have contact with people with mental illness when a situation, you know, becomes acute,” Bond said. “The people that are suffering from mental illness reach out for help in many different ways. They try to do it within their family members and they try to do it with mental health professionals, and when those avenues fail, typically problems develop, and when those problems develop, the police and other law enforcement get involved in those situations.”
Bond said he and his deputies have gone through training with a regional mental health liaison to help them deal with people with mental illness. Nevertheless, he stressed that they are not mental health professionals.
“We deal with criminal matters, and so when a situation becomes so bad that law enforcement has to be called in, we may not be the best avenue to deal with the situation,” Bond said. “When a person with mental illness gets arrested and brought into the jail facility, a jail’s purpose is to arrest people and hold them for court. We don’t have adequate mental health resources in the jail. We certainly are not providing counseling or assistance in that matter, and it taxes our resources and we’re really not providing the services that these people need.
“People that have mental health illness, when they get arrested, studies have said that they tend to stay in jail two to three times longer than what the general population does, so it creates a heavier burden on the criminal justice system to be able to process those people through.”
Crisis intervention team training is another effort that works to create effective interactions between law enforcement and people with mental illness. Sandy Goff with the Sedalia Police Department said Officer Mark Cherry went through 40-hour basic CIT training in June in Jefferson City.
Nevertheless, Bond said it is sometimes frustrating for law enforcement in these kinds of situations.
“We as law enforcement officers provide a multitude of tasks,” Bond said. “We have a lot of responsibility and law enforcement is a very small portion of that. Over the years, we’ve seen an increasing number of these types of calls for service, and that is just another indication as to the fact that maybe this is a need that is not being adequately met in our community.”
Smith said he and Bond were talking the other day about the number of suicides increasing countywide, and how it’s definitely becoming an issue.
“In all honesty, it’s a tragedy, just a terrible way to end one’s life,” Smith said. “I don’t think people realize what families and friends go through when somebody does that. I don’t think they think about that, but it’s just devastating to a family.”
Leah Wankum can be reached at 826-1000 or @leahwankum.