Record suicides in Kent Co.; ages getting younger

Kent County

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — More people died by suicide in Kent County last year than ever before, and people in their 20s and 30s were the age groups most impacted.

Of the 97 people who died from suicide in 2018, more than a quarter — 28% — were in their 30s.  The next largest age group affected were those ages 20-29, comprising 23% of all suicides.

We lost five teens — including four 14-year-olds — to suicide in 2018, the same number as in 2017.

That means in 2018 in Kent County, more than half of those who died by suicide were 39 or younger.
That’s a change from prior years, when people in their 40s, 50s and 60s made of the bulk of those who died by suicide.

“We can’t definitely know why suicides are increasing,” said Evonne Edwards, a licensed psychologist and Clinical Director of Pine Rest’s outpatient clinic network.

But Edwards noted that the increase in suicides among women of child-bearing age might point to struggles with post-partum depression. She also said millennials, the term to refer to the generation now ages 23 to 38, are facing more financial stressors than expected based on their parents’ wealth. Edwards also thinks increasing substance abuse, including opioid addiction, is playing a role. Other experts point to growing pressure from social media as a factor in the and life in the digital age.

The number of women who died by suicide in Kent County went from 17 in 2017 to 27 in 2018. Still, men — mostly white — make up the majority of those lost to suicide at 72%.

The increasing suicide rate in Kent County mirrors what’s happening across the nation.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last year that suicide rates nationwide have risen nearly 30 percent since 1999.

Edwards said there would be an outcry if any other illness increased by 30% when other rates are decreasing.

“You don’t see similar intensity or passion when dealing with suicide,” she said. “But depression is an illness that can kill.”

It’s also an illness that can be successfully treated if identified and acted upon.

Vonnie Woodrick, who lost her husband Rob to suicide 15 years ago, is trying to destigmatize mental health issues in part by changing the way we talk about suicide, even urging people not to use certain terms when describing it.

“Stop using these stigmatized words … words like ‘kill’ — ‘my husband killed himself.’ If I were to say my husband died from depression, look at the different conversation that we can have,” she explained.

“When I say my husband killed himself, that’s dark and scary and that’s stuff that people don’t want to talk about, but if I talk about the illnesses — depression, anxiety — those are illnesses that can be treated, and we do have a lot of successes with that,” she continued. “However, like all illnesses, even the flu, some people can die. My husband lost his battle with depression. He did not choose to end his life. The illness won. And suicide was the side effect.”  

Woodrick founded the Ada-based nonprofit i understand which supports those who have lost loves ones to suicide.

She runs a support group for survivors in the basement of Grand Rapids’ Fountain Street Church the third Wednesday of each month from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. At this week’s meeting, 15 people sat in a circle sharing experiences, coping mechanisms and understanding.

In total, the group lost nine loved ones to suicide: sons, brothers, boyfriends, a dad, a daughter. More than half of the nine who died had diagnosed mental health issues. More than half also struggled with substance use disorders.

Kristina Nelson’s longtime boyfriend, Butch Huffman, was among the 97 who died in 2018. He was 36 years old, a father and a machine builder.

An undated courtesy photo of Butch Huffman.

Nelson was heartbroken, devastated and mad that he left her. It was one of the support meetings that helped her let go of the anger.

“I am starting to realize he didn’t think about that stuff, he couldn’t see that stuff,” she said through tears.

She credited another member of the group, a mom who lost a son, with helping her realize that people who die by suicide are unable to process the devastation their death would cause.

Patti and Kirk Scranton lost their son, Jamie to suicide three years ago. He was 25 years old and a U.S. Marine. It was Patti Scranton who helped Nelson, as well as Huffman’s sister, gain a deeper understanding of what he was going through.

“Because they’re not even capable of thinking about their loved ones,” Patti Scranton said. “They’re just in a dark place and it’s like a tunnel. There’s no light. There’s no arms reaching out to them  even though the arms are there.”  

Huffman’s sister, Erisa Kik, said she knows her brother loved his family.

“He loves us, we know that he loves us,” Kik said. “He loves his kid, he loves his family, but something happened at that moment where he just couldn’t do it anymore.”

Here are some of the factors that put people at risk for suicide according to the Mental Health Foundation of West Michigan:

  • Untreated Mental Illness
  • Current and past psychiatric diagnoses – especially mood disorders like depression and bipolar
  • Exposure to stressful life events/abuse/trauma
  • Difficult or abusive childhood
  • Ongoing stress and anxiety
  • Chronic illness or pain
  • Chemical imbalance
  • Substance misuse

Here are some warnings signs to watch for:

  • Loss of interest or pleasure
  • Impulsivity or recklessness
  • Hopelessness or despair
  • Anxiety/panic
  • Social withdrawal
  • Anger

Here are some of the events that might trigger a suicide:

  • Loss of relationship
  • Disciplinary action
  • Financial, health or legal problems
  • Ongoing medical illness
  • Chronic pain
  • Intoxication

Both Woodrick and the Mental Health Foundation, which founded and runs the be nice. campaign, urge people to reach out to anyone exhibiting warning signs.

“Ask the question,” Woodrick said. “Ask, ‘Are you OK? Are you thinking of taking your own life?’”

Then help them find treatment.

Woodrick said it’s a myth that talking about suicide might somehow plant the idea in a person’s head or influence them to do it.

“Part of my goal and my mission is bringing this conversation to the forefront and asking people, ‘Do you have anxiety, depression, alcoholism, addiction, any types of those illnesses in your family?’ Because chances are it’s going to be carried on to the next generation and the next generation,” Woodrick said.

For people in crisis, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can always be reached at 1.800.273.8255 or online.

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