Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
It didn’t seem like a trend at first.
But Farmington Police Chief Steve Hebbe noticed that the number of suicides in his city began increasing more rapidly than normal, especially during the summer months.
“We had a number of hangings that our officers were going to,” he said. “It appeared to be coming faster than I’ve seen it in the past.”
Eventually, he and other local officials realized they were witnessing a disturbing trend in Farmington, as the number of suicides in the community increased by 175% compared with the previous year.
This year, there have been 11 suicides in the city of around 45,000 people, compared with four during the same period in 2019.
“To see your suicide rate at almost three times the normal rate, it’s obviously concerning to us,” Hebbe told the Journal in a phone interview.
The last two weeks alone have seen three people kill themselves, including a man who first shot his wife before turning the gun on himself and a 14-year-old boy who shot himself.
It’s the latter demographic that has officials most concerned. Out of the 11 suicides this year, four are juveniles, a statistic Hebbe said is not typical of the area. He said a young person committing suicide is the worst type of call his officers receive.
“There’s really nothing we can do,” he said. “That’s the worst part for us.”
Why so many are ending their life remains a mystery, as none of the cases seem to be connected, Hebbe said. Some, though, speculate environmental factors brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic might be a cause.
Suicide and crisis hotlines told the Journal in April that they were fielding an increase in calls across the state and that many callers had difficulty coping with long hours of isolation during the pandemic.
A Boston University study found that the number of adults experiencing depressive symptoms tripled to 27.5% after the start of the pandemic.
And Farmington, along with the rest of San Juan County, has been hit harder by the pandemic than many other New Mexico communities.
According to the state Department of Health, more than 1,100 people in Farmington have tested positive, with the neighboring Navajo Nation among the hardest-hit regions in the nation. The virus has killed nearly 200 in San Juan County. The local economy has taken a hit too, with San Juan County facing a 16% unemployment rate, greater than the statewide average of 13%.
Farmington Schools Superintendent Eugene Schmidt said three of the juveniles who took their own lives were of high school-age and noted that many of the district’s students have had trouble adjusting to an online learning environment, where they’re physically disconnected from their peers.
“We’ve really tried to keep a close watch over kids,” Schmidt said. “It’s just a little bit harder since kids are home.”
The district has implemented suicide-awareness programs that highlight warning signs of suicide, but the school district’s director of support services, Cody Diehl, said those signs are much harder to see on a computer screen.
Farmington police have also made social media posts encouraging those with thoughts of suicide to call emergency hotlines.
But without anyone reporting those warning signs, Hebbe said it’s difficult for his department to try to prevent someone from attempting to take their life, which leads to a lot of frustration.
“I don’t have the answer,” he said. “I’m not really sure what more I can do.”
Some have gone to the state for answers.
Farmington Mayor Nathan Duckett said he brought up the recent increase in suicides during a conference with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office and mayors around the state. He told the Journal he wants the state to investigate the issue, including how COVID-19’s impact on the economy might be related.
“We believe the state should take some action of some kind and start analyzing what continued closures may be doing to our communities and to our people,” he said.
Duckett said he’s advocating for schools and businesses to reopen, arguing their closures can lead to poverty and undue stress on residents. He has previously criticized COVID-19 restrictions implemented by Lujan Grisham.
Whether suicides have increased statewide remains unclear, but those interviewed agree it is highly unlikely that only Farmington is experiencing a spike.
“It’s hard to believe Farmington stands out in the singular,” Hebbe said. “Probably, other communities are seeing this too.”