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Experts Search For Ways To Reduce North Idaho’s High Suicide Rate

Mon., Jan. 9, 1995

A 58-yearold Post Falls man locked himself in his garage Thursday morning, put a shotgun to his head and killed himself.

As his family and friends struggle with their loss, health and law enforcement officials will begin their annual tally.

Idaho has had one of the worst suicide rates - among the top six - in the nation for the last decade.

And the rate in North Idaho has been consistently higher than the state’s rate as a whole, according to data kept by the Idaho Center for Vital Statistics.

number of people kill themselves in North Idaho, according to data kept by the Idaho Center for Vital Statistics.Almost as many people die by their

own hand in the Panhandle as die in car accidents. From 1989 through 1992, North Idaho had 117 suicides and 138 motor vehicle deaths.

No one knows exactly why.

Poverty, the availability of guns, rural isolation and high divorce rates are among the reasons experts cite.

Three theories dominate the explanations, said David Clark, director of the Center for Suicide Research and Prevention in Chicago.

The first attributes high rates to sunny states where the elderly retire. Elderly people are considered a highrisk group for suicide.

Although Idaho as a whole is not a major retirement destination, Coeur d’Alene has an older population than other parts of the state.

The second theory involves gun availability. The Rocky Mountain states, which have the highest suicide rates, also have more gun owners per capita than the rest of the nation does.

Nationwide, about 60 percent of all suicides are committed with guns, Clark said. In Idaho, the number is 70 percent.

The third theory is based on research that identified common demographic factors in counties with high suicide rates. The most common factors were high divorce rates and low church attendance.

North Idaho had the highest divorce rate in the state for 1992 and 1993, according to vital statistics reports.

“It’s age-old - a social fabric thing,” Clark said. For instance, “areas that are very, very Catholic have lower suicide rates.”

Although financial problems were not one of the most common factors in those studies, mental health professionals locally are seeing more suicide cases connected to that.

“I’m seeing, anyway, a lot of people having increased financial problems,” said Marie Parkman, program director for public mental health services in North Idaho.

“They used to relate it (suicide) to psychological disorders, but not anymore.

“You can be a person who’s in unbearable psychological pain, suffered a financial loss or losing your marriage,” she said.

Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among adolescents.

According to an annual survey of teens in Idaho, 29 percent to 30 percent have contemplated suicide.

Kids often have a hopeless attitude, said Dottie Christiansen, executive director of the Youth Help Line in Coeur d’Alene.

“We’re really seeing a change in the kids in this area over the past couple of years.”

Last year, the local crisis line intervened in four suicide cases in progress. In one case, they got police to a house in time to catch a girl in the bathroom with a gun.

“Now, more girls are using guns to kill themselves,” Christiansen said.

If that’s true, and guns continue to be the leading method of suicide, suicide rates are apt to rise.

Health professionals at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and at state agencies are trying to prevent that.

One way is to raise awareness, they say.

“Many people don’t talk about suicide. It’s the unspoken tragedy,” said Galen Louis, an injury prevention specialist with the state Department of Health and Welfare.

Louis is helping develop ways to lower the suicide rate. The national goal is to reduce the rate to 10.5 suicide deaths per 100,000 by the year 2000.

North Idaho’s suicide rate is almost twice that.

“We believe suicide is preventable,” Louis said.

“But there is no single shot or a condom. It requires something much more diverse.”

Louis is setting up a pilot program in southeastern Idaho that would link law enforcement, education, health professionals, hotline workers and others in a network to raise awareness and respond to cries for help.

MEMO: See also sidebar which appeared with this story under headline “Warning signs”

See also sidebar which appeared with this story under headline “Warning signs”

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