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Suicides soar in county during 2012

STORY BY EILEEN KELLEY, (Week of January 24, 2013)

On her 34th birthday and just days before the world rang in 2013, a woman sat in a beach chair at Golden Sands Beach and is believed to have raised a handgun to her head and pulled the trigger.

Her suicide was the 33rd of the year in Indian River County – a total that exceeded the number in 2010 combined.

This figure should give cause for concern, says one expert who notes that in his 25 years in the county there have never been enough mental health professionals, particularly those who can diagnose and offer treatment over long periods of time to the poor and underinsured.

Robert Brugnoli, interim chief executive officer and clinical director of the Mental Health Association who has been in the area since 1987, said one of Indian River County’s greatest flaws is the small number of psychiatrists who practice here.

"Almost from the date that I arrived here in Indian River County, there has been a shortage of psychiatrists," he said. That shortage still exists today.

The Mental Health Association, which has operated a mental health walk-in clinic for years, has seen a spike in the number of people seeking help for mental illness, said Brugnoli.

Over the last 15 years, 391 people have killed themselves in the county. At no time over that period had the yearly totals surged into the 30s until last year.  In 2011, 12 people took their own lives.

Suicides typically peak when the economy tanks, as it did in 2008 and 2009 when the number of people who killed themselves in Indian River County went from just nine in 2005 to 28 suicides in 2008 and 27 in 2009. That number then dipped to 18 in 2010.

The suicide rate in Indian River County is significantly higher than either St. Lucie or Martin Counties.

St. Lucie County has twice the population as Indian River, but its 46 suicides in 2012 were nowhere near double Indian River’s. Likewise, Martin County, also larger than Indian River County by about 10,000 people, had fewer suicides than Indian River County in 2012 when 29 people killed themselves.

Dr. Roger Mittleman, the chief medical examiner for the 19th District  – which serves, Okeechobee, Indian River, St. Lucie and Martin counties – said perhaps it would be better to think of 2011 figure with only 12 suicides as an anomaly.

"I just don't think there is much going on here in terms of that increase," Mittleman said.

Twenty two of the 33 suicides in Indian River County last year were men.  Men are far more likely – about half of them – to kill themselves with a gun, while only about a third of the women used a gun to end their lives.

Of the women, two hanged themselves, three died of intentional drug overdoses and two drowned, including a woman whose belongings were found near the lifeguard tower at South Beach. Her body was discovered by several walkers at around 8 p.m. on Aug. 9. 

Of the Indian River suicides, all where white except for a 31-year-old Hispanic who shot himself in April.  The ages of those who killed themselves ranged from two people in their 30s to two people in their 80s.

A little more than a decade ago, the Mental Health Association was only offering  a crisis line and a drop-in center for mentally ill people to socialize. Outside of offering referrals in the mid 1990s  that were usually met with a  months-long waiting list, the association offered no therapy.

But a suicide in 1999 paved the way for what is now the health association’s walk-in clinic. 

Islanders Bob and Ellie McCabe started the Mental Health Collaborative to address the pressing mental health needs of the community.  Now, the Mental Health Association has a psychiatrist on site three days a week.

Brugnoli said the key to helping people before it is too late is to attempt to address the issues that trigger stress and depression. “Often time it can be family issues and marital discord,” he said.

Brugnoli said in about 90 percent of the cases where a life ends in suicide, the underlying issue can be traced back to a diagnosable psychiatric condition.

“The main thing is we listen and help them develop a problem lists,” said Brugnoli.  “And then we attempt to help them develop strategies so that they can face the issues that they are experiencing.