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Why Oregon's suicide rate
is among highest in the country
Three months later, a tearful Stacy Punch still struggles to understand why.
Married for 15 years, she saw no signs of the tempest that must have been raging inside her husband. Instead, she saw a father who drove his kids to track and wrestling meets. A husband who took their son, Derek, 13, hunting in Eastern Oregon. A sergeant for the Oregon State Police who caught drunk drivers and helped rescue a woman caught in the Japanese tsunami two years ago.
A man who saved lives. A family man.
"Nothing led up to it," Stacy Punch says on a rainy spring afternoon in Gold Beach. She speaks haltingly, pausing when the memories overwhelm her.
"He never talked about it, never threatened to kill himself."
Suicides are not uncommon in Curry County, which includes Gold Beach and Brookings. Between 2003 and 2010, 61 people killed themselves in the county, giving it the highest suicide rate in the state. Scott Punch handled five of those suicides in the past year alone, Stacy Punch says.
Suicides higher in the West
New figures show a sharp rise in suicides among middle-aged Americans, and an even bigger increase in Oregon. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report shows suicides among men and women aged 35-64 increased 49 percent in Oregon from 1999-2017, compared to 28 percent nationally.
For years, Oregon has ranked between seventh and ninth in the country for suicides. In 2011, 685 Oregonians killed themselves, twice the number who died in vehicle crashes and six times the homicide rate. In 2012, the number climbed to 709 people who took their own lives, according to preliminary numbers. Oregon's suicide rate has been increasing since 2000.
The financial cost is high. In 2010, self-inflicted injury hospitalization costs exceeded $41 million.
"The whole field of prevention is so young, maybe 10, 15 years old," she says. "We haven't developed prevention strategies. One of the things that's sadly true, doctors, nurses, social workers, mental health practitioners, none of these people get adequate training."
"Are we doing enough to prevent suicides? I would say not," says Lisa Millet, a suicide expert who manages the Injury and Violence Prevention Section of the Oregon Health Authority's Public Health Division.
Oregon Public Health Division
Suicide affects families for years, even generations, Millet says. "It's so disruptive because of all the shame and guilt. It carries across generations. It's horrific. If you think of all the communities affected -- we have thousands of people in Oregon who have died by suicide."
"The whole field of prevention is so young, maybe 10, 15 years old," she says. "We haven't developed prevention strategies. One of the things that's sadly true, doctors, nurses, social workers, mental health practitioners, none of these people get adequate training." Chart
Among efforts to stem the tide in the past 10 years, the state has trained suicide prevention specialists and introduced prevention programs in schools.
But most Western states struggle with suicide rates higher than the national average, especially Montana, Wyoming, Nevada, New Mexico, Idaho and Alaska. There's even a name for the north-south swath of states: "Suicide Alley."
Access to guns is one reason, studies show. Western states have more lax gun laws than other parts of the country. New York, with its more restrictive gun laws, ranks 50th in suicides in the country. A little more than half of all Oregonians who kill themselves use guns, according to the Oregon Public Health Division.
In 2011, most Oregon firearm deaths were suicides (76 percent). Guns are used in suicides more than twice as often as the next two most popular methods: poison (20 percent) and hanging/suffocation (18 percent). Research shows 90 percent of suicides in rural America involve firearms.
Geography is another reason Oregon's suicide rate is high. Suicide risk is higher in rural areas. Studies show that limited mental health care services, access to firearms and a rugged, individualistic culture that doesn't lend itself to seeking help are primary factors contributing to suicide.
Age is also a factor. Suicide rates increase as people get older, peaking after 85. For reporting purposes, people who die under Oregon's Death With Dignity law are not listed as suicides. A change in health or the death of a spouse are triggers for suicide. Curry County has the highest number of older people, per capita, in the state, says Jan Kaplan, chief executive officer for Curry Community Health.
"People retire here, many from California -- we're right on the California border -- and we don't have a college here, so we have few people between the ages of 20 and 40."
Declines in the county's fishing and timber industry mean many residents don't have jobs, leading to depression and drug and alcohol use, says Kaplan's colleague, Carol Raper, a mental health program manager for the agency.
"We're stretched pretty thin," she says. "We have nowhere near adequate services. I don't think people are aware a neighbor may be showing signs of behavior that is a concern."
Men at risk
What's even less known is the reason behind the high rate of men killing themselves, says Mark S. Kaplan, who has studied suicide for 19 years and has published widely on the subject. Kaplan works at the School of Community Health at Portland State University. Nationally, 80 percent of suicides are by men, his research shows.
"Death by suicide is a strikingly male phenomenon," Kaplan writes in the International Journal of Men's Health. Reasons include losing a job, becoming ill, losing a spouse or partner, an embarrassing public disclosure or fearing loss of control. Men who lost their jobs are twice as likely to kill themselves, according to a Swedish study.
Those factors can affect a man's image of himself, Kaplan says. Men, particularly in rural areas, view themselves as rugged individuals who prefer independence, he says. They may live far from mental health services so they don't ask for help. They often own a gun. If faced with a life crisis, they may not believe they have another choice.
That's exactly how Leslie Storm's husband felt, she says. Twenty years ago, Fred Young, an attorney in Manzanita, took his boat out to sea and shot himself. They found his body a week later.
Young had been facing financial problems, Storm says. "He didn't want to be a burden." She adds, "I think about it every single day."
"The suicidal act is an effort to escape an intolerable view of self," Kaplan writes.
Guns do the job. And the group that uses guns in suicides the most? Older men. More than 70 percent of older male suicides involve a firearm, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Suicide rates among youth have declined, but not among adults. Millet says she can't link the decline to any particular program. "But, we've made some big strides," she says. "We're preventing suicides every day. Some suicides we'll never be able to prevent. Some are a result of really impulsive behavior -- people with a firearm. We have to build healthier communities. Allow people to lead healthier lives. There are a lot of barriers to that. We're still not really good about talking about suicide as a health problem. Like mental health, there's still a lot of stigma."
'He had it all'
Scott Punch was only 45, but in retrospect, he fit the profile of someone at risk for suicide. He was a veteran of Desert Storm and suffered post-traumatic stress syndrome, Stacy Punch says. Suicide rates for veterans exceed the national average.
A shrine-like shelf in Stacy Punch's new home in Gold Beach holds Scott's ashes, flags, pictures and items from his career as a state trooper.Jamie Francis/The Oregonian
"Scotty kept the military and what he witnessed to himself," she says. "He also shielded his police work and the violence he had seen from his family. He never talked about any details that would or could traumatize his family."
It seemed as if everyone in Gold Beach, population 2,260, knew Scott. He had seen residents get into trouble and arrested some of them, yet 400 people came to his funeral.
"He was well loved despite the badge," Stacy says. "He just didn't know it."
"Pretty much everyone was in shock," says Curry County Sheriff John Bishop, who was Scott's friend for 19 years. They hunted together and boated with each others' families.
"Everybody asked the question -- why? -- and there's no great answer to it. I think it was an impulse and it was stupid and doggone it, he shouldn'ta done it."
After Scott's death Jan. 5, Stacy moved the family across town because she couldn't live in their old house. She feels abandoned, scared and mad.
"He had it all -- a daughter, a son, a wife who's in love
with him. Nothing was more important to him than his kids. I
planned on spending 40 more years with him. He left me to
finish raising his son -- left me alone. We'll never be able
to make sense out of it. We'll just try to go on." - David
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