Suicide crisis in Waupaca County
On Jan. 26, a 45-year-old Manawa man committed suicide by hanging himself.
Unemployed and unmarried, he had recently experienced a spate of setbacks.
In November 2012, he had been arrested for a first-time drunken driving offense. He refused to comply with the mandatory blood-alcohol test, and his driver’s license was immediately revoked for one year.
He then failed to appear for two scheduled court hearings, and a warrant was issued for his arrest.
He appeared on Waupaca’s Most Wanted.
On Jan. 11, his landlord filed a small claims civil case for his eviction.
Five days before he was scheduled to appear in court to respond to the eviction notice, he killed himself.
The Manawa man is one of five confirmed suicides in Waupaca County during the first three months of this year.
Public health officials describe the 2013 suicide numbers as alarming.
In less than three months, the county has seen nearly as many suicides as it did all of last year.
There were seven suicides in 2012 and the same number in 2011.
Concerns over rising suicide rates led local nurses, educators, pastors and law enforcement to launch the Suicide Prevention Coalition more than a year ago.
They feel the public needs to be more aware of how the growing problem of suicide is affecting families and communities.
According to Waupaca County Coroner Barry Tomaras, all five 2013 suicides were men.
They ranged in age from 35 to 65.
Two of them lived in Waupaca; the others lived in Weyauwega, Clintonville and Manawa.
Three of them hanged themselves, and two of them used guns.
Tomaras said he has seen more than 100 suicides since he became coroner in 1994.
Over the past five years, he has seen 32 confirmed suicides.
“It’s difficult to pinpoint a single cause,” Tomaras said, regarding the suicides in 2013. “I think at least two of them were related to the economy. I know that one of them was being treated for depression.”
Tomaras said suicides often involve the loss of a job, broken relationships or the fear of going to jail after being arrested.
“Obviously, they see no way out of whatever situation they are in,” Tomaras said. “There are usually warning signs, but family and friends don’t think that somebody they know would actually commit suicide.”
Sue Woodliff is a nurse for the Waupaca School District and a member of the countywide Suicide Prevention Coalition.
She observes that suicide is often the culmination of a series of personal losses.
“A person loses their job, loses their spouse and loses their health,” Woodliff said. “Every loss is compounded by the next loss until it seems overwhelming, until it comes down to one last straw.”
She said the ongoing sense of loss may develop into severe depression.
“Depression isn’t just another bad day, depression is an all-encompassing feeling. You’re so down, you can’t get out of it,” Woodliff said.
If left untreated, depression can become a debilitating form of mental illness.
“It’s like any other illness, but unfortunately, mental illness is not viewed that way. There is a stigma attached to it,” she said.
The stigma of mental illness leads many people in need of help to avoid treatment, according to Linda Behm, the public health nurse manager for Waupaca County.
“People don’t want mental health issues to be on their records,” Behm said, noting employees fear they will not be promoted or may lose their jobs if they are treated for mental illness.
Behm also pointed to insurance companies which provide little or no coverage for mental health treatment.
“Insurance companies often place a limit on the number of sessions or the duration of mental health treatments,” Behm said. “It’s like saying you can only have one year of insulin if you have diabetes.”
She explained that those suffering from depression may suffer from a chemical imbalance which can be treated by medications or psychological problems which can be treated through counseling.
Either course of treatment takes time.
Behm said there is a link between alcohol and drug abuse and depression.
“Alcohol abuse may be a form of self-medication,” Behm said. “But if we drink too much, we may be taking away our ability to cope with our problems.”
Mental health crises
Although Waupaca County does not have recent figures for attempted suicides, it has compiled figures on its crisis intervention services.
In 2012, the Waupaca County Department of Health and Human Services responded to 340 documented cases of crisis intervention.
Of these cases, 196 resulted in an acute psychiatric hospitalization, whether on a voluntary basis (98), involuntary (89) or for strictly detox services (9).
The remaining 144 crisis interventions were transferred to other resources, such as supportive counseling, group homes which can help individuals who are in urgent crisis but are determined to not be an imminent danger to themselves or others, or to friends and family.
There were 737 suicides in Wisconsin in 2011, according to the latest available figures from the state health department.
More than 5,200 Wisconsinites were treated in emergency rooms and more than 4,100 were admitted to hospitals for self-inflicted injuries.
“When I compare the number of suicides in the first few months of this year to the previous year, I find it alarming,” Woodliff said. “The community needs to be aware of this problem.”
This article is the first in a series about suicide.
Future articles will examine suicide among teens, signs a person may be suicidal and steps families and communities may take to help prevent suicide.