There is an epidemic of suicides in Johnson County.
That is according to Maureen Womack, executive director of Johnson County Mental Health Center, who has seen a surge of attempted, threatened and “completed” suicides.
I wanted to check this out, because I personally know the horror of losing three local friends who have committed suicide over the past two years.
The actual numbers on suicides were difficult to nail down.
The mental health center itself does not keep track. The Johnson County sheriff does not keep totals on suicides. The Johnson County coroner does not keep records. Johnson County District Court has the records, but not in a format that would easily provide totals.
Alas, the answer lay in the Kansas Bureau of Vital Statistics in Topeka.
And here is what I found:
Between 2006 and 2010, there was a 70 percent increase in suicides in Johnson County, from 47 to 80. They climbed gradually over that time. In 2011, it dipped back somewhat to 65 suicides.
And keep in mind, the number of suicides is always under-reported. As Sheriff Frank Denning said, if a car goes off a cliff and kills someone, that counts as a traffic fatality, when it could have been a suicide.
Why is this happening?
The sheriff, who has seen a large increase in the number of threatened and attempted suicide calls, refuses to speculate. Because suicide is not a crime, he does not keep track of motives.
But one who follows this closely and would speculate is Rennie Shuler-McKinney, director of clinical services, behavioral health, at Shawnee Mission Medical Center. She has been a therapist dealing with suicidal clients for 25 years.
Shuler-McKinney thinks it is the poor economy that is leading to more suicides in Johnson County, particularly among middle-aged Caucasian males.
That mirrors a national suicide epidemic where there currently are 12 suicides per 100,000 persons. By that measure, Johnson County should be experiencing approximately 66 suicides.
We are this year, but last year was way above the national average.
“A few years ago, these men lost their jobs,” she said. “The impact was not immediate. But after they don’t find a job, their home goes into foreclosure, they say, ‘I can’t do this any longer.’
“These men feel like they have let down their families,” she said. “They have been the providers, and now they feel like they are a burden.”
“There are high societal expectations in Johnson County. You are expected to have a nice house, a nice car, and provide a college education for your children. When you lose those things, it can be devastating,” she said.
What can be done about this?
Shuler-McKinney said 90 percent of completed suicides have a diagnosable mental illness. She said there is a fear of asking the question, “Are you suicidal?” when someone shows the symptoms of desperation.
I failed to ask that question of one of my closest friends, when I could see he was desperate. And that haunts me to this day.
In Johnson County, we may not be used to hard times, so we’re not as prepared to deal with crises like this. But it’s on all of us to educate ourselves, to look for the symptoms, and to be ready to act.
Help is a call away.
If you or someone you know appears to be suicidal, there is a National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255 .
Also, like some other local hospitals, Shawnee Mission Medical Center has its own community call line: 913-789-3218. SMMC is also offering free depression screenings on Oct. 11.
Johnson County Mental Health Center maintains professional clinical staff on duty 24 hours a day to provide mental health emergency services.
| Special to The Star