Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
Last year, in New Mexico, more people killed themselves than during any other year in at least two decades.
According to data provided by the state’s Department of Health, 535 people died by suicide – a rate of 24.8 per 100,000 residents. That’s a 6.7% increase over the 2017 rate.
It was the highest rate on record since the state began consistently keeping track in 1999, said Carol Moss, an epidemiologist who focuses on mental health for the DOH. She said the increase is a trend mirrored throughout the country and even throughout the world.
National data is not yet available for 2018, but in 2017 New Mexico was ranked as having the fourth highest rate of suicides in the nation – 23.51 suicides per 100,000 people – behind Montana, Wyoming and Alaska, according to an analysis released by the Violence Policy Center on Thursday.
A 2017 report from the Office of the Medical Investigator found 2.6% of deaths in New Mexico were suicides, compared to 1.6% across the United States.
Moss said it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what causes some states to have higher rates of suicide than others, but some studies suggest less restrictive gun laws and high numbers of gun ownership as well as the rural nature of a state might have some effect.
“A lot of the western states, or the mountain west states, have similarly high suicide rates,” Moss said. “Most of those states are fairly unpopulated, like ours overall, so it doesn’t take a lot of deaths to jack up the rate. There is an association with firearm ownership and firearms use and deaths connected to suicide.”
In 2017 a little more than half of New Mexico’s suicides were related to guns, compared to upwards of 60% in the other top states, according to the Violence Policy Center study. The study found those states also have much higher rates of gun ownership – between 54% and 69% compared to New Mexico’s 37%.
In New Mexico, about a quarter of those who died by suicide hanged themselves, and about 13% died from substance intoxication, according to the 2017 OMI report.
In states with large swaths of rural land it can be hard for people living in small towns to get access to help, a factor that could contribute to higher suicide rates, said Molly McCoy Brack, the clinical director at the Agora Crisis Center.
“For one thing that makes it more difficult to access care, when you need it,” she said. “Even when somebody realizes they need help and they are willing to accept help, its not always easy to get it. If you live in Vaughn, New Mexico, the closest counseling agency might be two hours away.”
APD’s mental health calls
Lt. Matt Dietzel has been with the Albuquerque Police Department for 14 years and has responded to many, many suicide calls.
“The scary ones and the ones you know are not going to end well when you get there is where they call and say the address and they hang up,” he said. “Generally that is somebody who is not going to be there when you get there. It’s not going to be good.”
About a year ago Dietzel took over the Crisis Intervention Unit, a team of 13 detectives, the civilians in the Crisis Outreach and Support Team (COAST), a psychiatrist and two mental health clinicians.
He said it used to be that APD’s crisis intervention officers would respond to every behavioral health call. Now they train all officers in the field on the basic method of QPR (Question, Persuade, Response) to deal with people who are threatening to kill themselves.
“We’ve done so much work to train the field and uniformed officers in general on how to deal with those calls we only do follow up now,” Dietzel said. “The field has gotten so good with what they do.”
The unit’s teleconference training program won an award last year from the International Association of Law Enforcement Planners and it has assisted police departments around the country with setting up their own programs.
In 2018, 65% (4,069) of APD’s calls involving someone experiencing behavioral health issues were related to suicide, according to a recently released Overview of Behavioral Health Related Incidents.
Dietzel said in the first eight months of this year they have gone out to 2,921 calls related to suicide, including threats and attempts, about 50% of their behavioral health calls.
“In terms of mental health it’s the number one call APD responds to hands down, no question,” he said.
Addressing suicide issue
In 2000, the Agora Crisis Center took about 1,200 calls.
Now they take about 30,000 calls a year, McCoy Brack said.
“We’re busy in general,” she said. “Of all the calls we take, about 20% of them involve suicide as a topic of discussion at some level. About 5% of our calls involve someone who is in imminent danger from suicide.”
The group of young people ages 10 to 14 experienced the largest increase in the rate of suicide over the past decade, according to data from the New Mexico Department of Health, rising from 4 in 2009 to 13 in 2018.
“Of course there aren’t very many deaths in that age group but still anytime you see an increase like that it’s a concern,” she said.
To address the issue of suicide, the DOH is facilitating a series of meetings with statewide advocates and organizations – including groups representing veterans, LGBTQ people, youths, survivors of suicide and those who have lost family or loved ones to suicide, behavioral health workers, nonprofits, and more.
Jacalyn Dougherty, the suicide prevention coordinator at DOH, said the group has four broad goals and intends to work on concrete actions to address those goals at their next meeting. She said there had been a similar coalition in 2014, but it had disbanded.
“We’re re-establishing it,” she said.