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Faces of suicide victims hard to recognize

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Suicide... The Silent Killer (Third in a series)

By Kayla Swanson and Stephen Thomas

 SHEPHERDSVILLE - There’s not a substantial way to pinpoint a potential suicide victim.

They come in various ages, races and sizes. They could be male or female. The event could be pre-meditated or on impulse.

Hillview Police chief Glenn Caple has witnessed a variety of suicide situations in his many years with HPD and the Bullitt County Sheriffs Office.

The variety, he said, was due to numerous reasons.

“It could mental issues, divorce issues, it’s a large amount of issues,” Caple said. “Some are drug-related, they’re trying to stop or cope with it.”

Bullitt County coroner Dave Billings said suicides in recent years have been a mixture of ages. He believed drug overdoses, especially with heroin, have increased.

“There are more heroin overdoses than suicides and vehicle accidents,” Billings said. “That’s a problem.”

The Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy reported 1,004 overdose fatalities statewide in 2012, with 59 of them officially ruled as suicides and another 57 undetermined.

The American Association of Suicidology (AAS) said 90 percent of completed suicides showed one or more mental disorders, one of which was drug or chemical dependency. Other disorders included depression, schizophrenia and adolescent conduct disorders.

In recent years, Caple said some suicides may be the result of losing jobs or difficulty in keeping up with bills due to the recent recession and financial crisis that followed.

The AAS also reported that feelings of hopelessness can be a greater suicide risk than depression.

Caple’s experiences include victims of both genders, ranging in ages from mid-20s to mid-50s, some even into their 70s.

According to the AAS, 91 deaths by suicide were reported in Kentucky in 2010 with victims age 65 or older. In comparison, the number of state suicide deaths by ages 15-24 that year was 58.

A 2010 report by the Center for Disease Control, in conjunction with the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, showed suicide rates for elderly adults age 85 and older to be 36 percent higher than under 85.

“They may have medical issues,” Caple said. “They may feel like they’re becoming a burden to their families.”

Karl Laves, assistant director of the Western Kentucky University Counseling and Testing Center, said older adults tend to look back on their lives and regret missed opportunities.

Laves said realizing they have less years to live, or asking themselves why they’re still living, could lead to a risk of suicidal thoughts. 

“These are questions you don’t have to face until your dying,” Laves said. 

The AAS reported suicide as the second leading cause of death in Kentucky for ages 15-34 and third for ages 10-14. For all ages, AAS said death by suicide was more common than homicide.

The above numbers include reported cases, though it’s not always clear if a death was an actual suicide.

Studies by the Kentucky Suicide Prevention Group show that 20 percent of elderly suicides over age 75 took place within 24 hours of a doctor’s visit.

Contrarily, less than 5 percent had been diagnosed with a terminal illness at the time of death, with two-thirds in their late 60s and older still in sound physical health.

The suicide rate for white males age 85 and older was six times higher than the overall rate. Elderly suicides occur once in every 20 attempts on average, compared to one in every 100 to 200 attempts by ages 15-24.

For females, the peak age for suicides is the 40-54 range. The rates decline after age 60.

Seven Counties Services, Inc., CEO Anthony Zipple reported an average of 120 suicides annually in Louisville, in comparison to 50 homicides.

Zipple said that rate was believed to be “much higher” due to the way suicides are reported by coroners and medical examiners.

Billings said state reports were only required when children or traffic accidents were involved.

“(In Bullitt County), if it’s a suicide it’s reported that way and, if it isn’t a suicide, it’s reported that way,” Billings said.

Officials need substantial evidence to rule a suicide, though in some cases it may not be as certain.

“Sometimes you can’t tell,” said Caple. “Some are obvious. We will investigate if it’s questionable, because insurance policies won’t pay on suicides.”

Kelly Shanks, a psychologist with Bullitt County Public Schools, said even with a true number of suicides not being reported, the number that were reported was still high.

“So many factors play into someone who gets all the way to that point,” said Shanks. “It’s always under-reported, for various reasons. It’s especially more difficult when you get to younger ages.”

Some suicide attempts are impulsive, Caple said, while others are thought out. In some cases the victim may leave behind clues or hints.

“If they’re saying good-byes on Facebook, sometimes you read between the lines,” he said. “If someone starts to give away valuables, getting rid of a car or a house, they’re maybe trying to get their things in order, almost like dealing with a terminal illness.”

Certain factors correlate with the potential for an individual to take their own life, Zipple said. However, he added that the factors aren’t always the cause.

Zipple said one group of factors involved depression, combining the use of drugs or alcohol with the loss of a job or family problems.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) reported other risk factors, including past history of attempted suicide, family history of suicide and depression or psychiatric illness, as well as impulsivity.

According to AFSP, 90 percent of suicide victims had a diagnosable and treatable mental illness. Males were three to five times more likely to commit suicide, with elderly Caucasian males having the highest suicide rates.

Caple said police are usually called and respond to a suicide event after it occurs. If they are in time, they could write a citation for involuntary hospitalization, similar to a mental request warrant, depending on the person’s response.

“(Police) receive some academy training, but mostly it’s day-to-day experience,” he said. “There’s not much legally we can do.”

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Read part one of the series here.

Read part two here.

Read part four here.

Read part five here.

Read part six here.

Read part seven here.