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Spokane police respond to ‘suicidal person’ calls an average of three times a day, new report says

Spokane Police Commander Joe Walker talks with a man balancing on the rail of the Monroe Street Bridge on Dec. 18, 2013, in Spokane, Wash. The man was persuaded to step down by officers. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane Police Commander Joe Walker talks with a man balancing on the rail of the Monroe Street Bridge on Dec. 18, 2013, in Spokane, Wash. The man was persuaded to step down by officers. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane police are called to help someone who’s thinking about committing suicide an average of three times a day, according to a new department report.

The report analyzed the 556 “suicidal person” calls the department received in the first half of 2016 and found most people did not have a prior history of suicide attempts or a diagnosed mental illness. Katy Douglas, an intern in the Internal Affairs department, wrote the report.

More striking than anything else, however, is the sheer number of calls the department handles, said Sgt. Dan Waters, one of the coordinators for the department’s crisis intervention training program.

The department handled about the same number of suicide calls in the first half of 2015 and people, including officers, often don’t realize how common those calls are.

“It’s still a shocking number. On a six-month period that seems like a lot,” Waters said.

The report’s release in September coincides with National Suicide Prevention Awareness month. Public health and mental health professionals say they’ve seen an increase in both suicides and people using mental health resources over the past few years.

In Spokane County, the suicide rate has climbed over the past 25 years from 12 suicides per 100,000 people in 1990 to 19 per 100,000 in 2014, according to data from the Spokane Regional Health District.

Though many people think of suicide as an issue affecting teenagers, the highest suicide rates over the past five years in Spokane have been among people between 45 and 65.

Teenage suicides are more likely to grab attention because teenagers rarely die from other causes like chronic diseases, said Amy Riffe, an epidemiologist at the health district.

Men are also much more likely to successfully commit suicide; their suicide rate is 27 per 100,000 people versus just 6 per 100,000 for women.

Men account for about 58 percent of suicidal-person calls to police.

When police are called, they’re usually able to get someone to a hospital or mental health treatment. Nearly half of calls ended with the person going to the hospital. Less than 3 percent of cases where police were called ended with the person’s suicide – 15 times of the 556 calls.

Waters hasn’t responded to many suicide calls recently, but said he’s handled a few over the years. In most cases, officers spend a long time talking to someone, listening to them describe failed relationships, personal problems and overwhelming despair.

“Oftentimes people don’t have a sounding board. People don’t have anybody to listen to them,” he said.

Staci Cornwell, the crisis services director for Frontier Behavioral Health, said she’s seen more people calling the agency’s crisis line looking for help, as well as using other mental health services. She attributes that in part to better awareness of resources that are available.

“We continue to see people that we’ve never seen before,” she said. “They’re calling with suicidal thoughts, or they’ve already attempted.”

“We’re still trying to get a handle on how we can reach people sooner so they’re not waiting for the point where they’re at this level of crisis,” Cornwell said.

The health district wants people to be aware of risk factors for suicide, spokeswoman Kim Papich said. Guns were used in more than half of completed suicides in Spokane County from 2010-2014, and having a gun in the home is a significant risk factor for suicide.

Papich said public health officials would like to see more measures taken to prevent that gun violence.

“Stemming gun violence doesn’t necessarily mean taking guns away. It’s more a community-based approach and understanding risk factors,” she said.

That could mean having a conversation with a friend or family member who’s struggling with suicidal thoughts and offering to store firearms in another home or in a lockbox they don’t have access to, she said.

Waters said he wants people to be able to reach out for help without stigma, but stressed the police are always available as an option.

“I want people to call the police if that’s all they do. If that’s all they do, if there’s nobody else, please call us. Because we are trained to handle this, we have community partners, we have ways to help that’s not putting somebody in handcuffs and taking them to jail,” he said.