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Berks mental health officials form fatality review committee as suicides soar

Eighty-one people died by suicide in 2023 in Berks County, the highest suicide total in over a decade and a 22% increase over the previous year.

According to figures provided by the Berks County coroner’s office, there were 21 more suicides last year than in 2022, when suicides dropped to 60 after spiking in 2021.

The 2023 total of 81 suicides is rivaled in the last 10 years only by the 2021 total of 77 that was logged as the nation emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic.

And through the first month of this year, the suicide rate has only worsened. The Berks coroner’s office logged 12 suicides in January, a staggering one-month figure, said George Holmes, chief deputy coroner.

This mirrors national statistics that those who succumb to suicide are predominantly white, middle-aged men, officials say.

Males accounted for 69, of 85%, of the suicides in 2023 in Berks.

Chief Deputy Coroner George Holmes. (BILL UHRICH - READING EAGLE)
Chief Deputy Coroner George Holmes. (BILL UHRICH – READING EAGLE)

Based on his own review of individual cases, Holmes concludes that most of those lost to suicide lack a support system. Many suffered from alcoholism or addiction to other substances, which had a role in their isolation, he said.

“As they isolate themselves, they put themselves more at risk of self-harm,” Holmes said.

Married individuals accounted for only one-third of last year’s suicides in Berks. About two-thirds of those who died by suicide in 2023 never married (six cases), were divorced (14 cases), were separated (one case) or were widowed (five cases).

In many cases, there is a triggering life event or circumstance: the death of a beloved family member, a divorce, diagnosis of a terminal illness or impending loss of independent living, or anniversary of the death of a parent or child.

“With a lot of suicides we see, I would say, there is a precipitating event,” Holmes said.

Nearly 50% of the Berks suicide victims last year were age 50 or older.

The biggest age category was between 50 and 69 years, with 27 cases, representing one-third of all cases, followed by 30-49 years with 24 cases, or 29.6% of all deaths by suicide.

Suicides by those 70 and older accounted for 14 cases or 17.3% of the total. In many suicides of the elderly, there is a co-occurring health problem, experts say.

There were nine suicides, or 11.1% of the total, by individuals 21 to 29 years old, and seven, or 13.6% of the total, by those in the 13-to-20 age category.

Review committee

Late last year, the Berks County Mental Health/Developmental Disabilities Program, which oversees publicly funded mental health and substance abuse treatment services, formed a fatality review committee with the Council on Chemical Abuse to dig deeper into the causes of the suicides.

“You can look at the data, but the data will show over time predominantly white males is really the highest statistic,” said Pam Seaman, administrator of the Berks County MH/DD Program. “But what about those situations?”

The committee is examining the data and reviewing specific cases to find out if there were missed opportunities for helping the victim with depression, substance abuse or other issues. With many suicides, however, there’s not a trail of information leading to answers.

Pam Seaman, administrator of the Berks County MH/DD Program. (BILL UHRICH - READING EAGLE)
Pam Seaman, administrator of the Berks County MH/DD Program. (BILL UHRICH – READING EAGLE)

“You don’t always know,” Seaman said. “You’re not able to connect the dots and put the pieces together because you don’t always have all of that information. You don’t necessarily have information from family or friends or other people.”

Once the team gets some information about a confirmed suicide, members will try to find out, working backward in time, if the person was in contact with the county’s crisis team, for example, or if they were engaged in services supported by Medicaid funds channeled to providers by the county mental health program.

Most likely, based on what the committee has learned, they did not.

“But we don’t know if they were connected with services elsewhere,” Seaman said.

ruOK?

Suicide is not just a problem in Berks. It’s a national problem, officials say.

Wendy K. Seidel, executive director of The Greater Reading Mental Health Alliance. (BILL UHRICH - READING EAGLE)
Wendy K. Seidel, executive director of The Greater Reading Mental Health Alliance. (BILL UHRICH – READING EAGLE)

“I think there is really still a stigma about mental health in general, especially for men,” said Wendy K. Seidel, executive director of the Greater Reading Mental Health Alliance, 1234 Penn Ave., Wyomissing. “They’re the one that when you ask them, ‘How are you doing?’ It’s, ‘Fine, fine.’ They’re happy-go-lucky at football games, and they’re the ones who are suffering.”

Eliminating the stigma surrounding mental illness and suicide has been the focus of the Berks County Suicide Prevention Task Force through its ruOK? campaign.

The task force was established in 2015 and is composed of community members who believe preventing suicides is everyone’s business.

Michele Ruano-Weber, deputy administrator of the Berks County MH/DD Program. (BILL UHRICH - READING EAGLE)
Michele Ruano-Weber, deputy administrator of the Berks County MH/DD Program. (BILL UHRICH – READING EAGLE)

The group wages its awareness campaign in various public venues, including a “Strike Out the Stigma” event each spring at a Reading Phillies game at FirstEnergy Stadium. This year’s event is June 4.

The mural on the back wall of the Mosaic House in the 500 block of Franklin Street offers hope to victims of despair. (BILL UHRICH - READING EAGLE)
The mural on the back wall of the Mosaic House in the 500 block of Franklin Street offers hope to victims of despair. (BILL UHRICH – READING EAGLE)

“We participate in ‘Out of Darkness’ walks and health fairs to try to get materials out there to people,” said Michele Ruano-Weber, deputy administrator of the county MH/DD program, who leads the task force. “Anyone is able to become part of the task force.”

More information on how to join is available by visiting ruokberks.com.

The task force advertises the ruOK? logo and website on park benches in the county park system. Six benches have been installed at Gring’s Mill Recreation Center Area in Spring Township and on the recreation trail along the Tulpehocken Creek since the task force was formed.

It also commissioned the “Hope” mural gracing an exterior wall of Threshold Rehabilitative Services’ Mosaic House building in the 500 block of Franklin Street.

The task force has commissioned suicide-awareness films by Schott Productions that target specific populations. The films are screened at the GoggleWorks as well as in some workplaces.

Nationally, those populations most at risk to suicide are white middle-aged men, older adults with co-occurring medical problems and young adults, Ruano-Weber said.

Pandemic’s role

The suicide total has fluctuated year to year over more than a decade, but there’s been a general uptick. From 2017 to 2023, there was an average of just over 67 suicides per year, with just one year (2020) below 60.

By comparison, from 2010 to 2016, the average annual total was 63.7, with four of those years below 60, but the average was skewed by one year, 2013, when there were 83 suicides.

From left, Pam Seaman, administrator of the Berks County MH/DD Program; Michele Ruano-Weber, deputy administrator; Wendy K. Seidel, executive director of The Greater Reading Mental Health Alliance. (BILL UHRICH - READING EAGLE)
From left, Pam Seaman, administrator of the Berks County MH/DD Program; Michele Ruano-Weber, deputy administrator; Wendy K. Seidel, executive director of The Greater Reading Mental Health Alliance. (BILL UHRICH – READING EAGLE)

The pandemic certainly has played a role in the high rate of suicide, with remote work further isolating people suffering from depression and anxiety, mental health officials say. Many people turned to substance use as a coping mechanism.

And there was no clearly defined beginning and end to the pandemic, they said.

“The other thing that’s kind of concerning,” Ruano-Weber said, “is we don’t know how many actually attempted but didn’t take their lives.”

The methods

One factor that is hard to ignore in the data is guns.

Firearms were used in 50, or about 62%, of the Berks suicides in 2023, with hanging the next most frequently deployed method, accounting for about 20% of the deaths.

Six people died by ingesting drugs, three others by ingesting a chemical and two each by asphyxia or jumping from a tall structure. There was one suicide by train and one by the use of a knife.

“The most lethal means is access to firearms,” Ruano-Weber said. “And, you know, that can be a political issue depending on who you talk to. But when you use a firearm there’s no going back, and it’s almost always lethal.”

Being proactive

Along with digging for answers on the back end, officials hope to channel more resources into proactive measures on the front end, Seaman said. Mental health treatment is often too reactive, she said.

People who work or volunteer in nonclinical roles can play a key part in prevention by nudging those struggling with hopelessness and despair to awwk help.

The task force has been rolling out a training program called QPR (Question-Persuade-Refer) to groups of paraprofessionals such as beauticians and coaches.

The training gives those who work closely with the public the skills to find out more about what the person’s struggles are, then persuade them to get help.

“The most important part is refer,” Ruano-Weber said. “Knowing what the resources are in the community.”

QPR training sessions last one to two hours and can be done remotely.

In addition to prevention, Berks mental health officials are pouring resources into focusing on “postvention,” offering immediate support at the scene of a suicide, if possible, to family members or loved ones of the victim.

Greater Reading Mental Health Alliance launched he LOSS (Local Outreach for Survivors of Suicide) in July with Berks County MH/DD and the Suicide Prevention Task Force.

Two years in the making in Berks, the team is one of more than 40 active LOSS teams in 15 states and several countries.

Under the LOSS model, a team of volunteers, ideally one of whom has experienced a loss by suicide, contacts the newly bereaved and provides support and referral information.

The goals include promoting healing and support to individuals impacted by a suicide and mitigating negative effects of exposure to suicide. Information about the team and how to make a referral is available at grmha.org/.

“We have packets of information that we take out to them,” said Seidel of the Mental Health Alliance. “Right now, with two volunteers, we try to get in touch with someone within 48 hours of referral.“

Those who lose a family member to suicide need to know they can talk to others who have experienced the same type of loss, she said. A suicide survivors’ group meets monthly in Wyomissing.

“Suicide still carries a stigma, and a lot of time the survivors lose their natural support system,” Seidel said. “When you run into your neighbor in the grocery store and they realize that your son died by suicide, they turn the cart around and walk the other way.

“Suicide loss is a very complicated grief.”

Help available

Crisis Intervention Hotline

• Phone: 610-379-2007 or toll free 1-888-219-3910

• Text: 484-816-7865 (RUOK)


Source: Berkshire mont

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