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Mental health advocates are hoping that the decrease in La Crosse County suicides this year signals a trend that will continue in 2017 and beyond.

The official count for 2016 stood at 15 Friday, an increase of one since Nov. 30, although two other potential cases still are being investigated, county Medical Examiner Tim Candahl said Friday.

Even if those two deaths land in the suicide category when the reports are finalized next week, the total would remain lower than the 22 people who took their own lives in 2015 and smaller than the record tally of 26 in 2014.

The statistics obviously do not include suicide attempts that did not result in death because such incidents are not recorded.

Candahl listed the methods of death as six by gunshot, four by hanging, three by drug overdoses, one the result of stabbing and one from huffing, which involves inhaling chemicals, usually those found in household products such as aerosol sprays, cleaning fluids, glue, paint and paint thinner, nail polish remover and similar agents. If the two still being probed are ruled suicides, drug overdoses probably will be the causes of death, he said.

Specific reasons for the ups and downs remain elusive, although Candahl suggested that “awareness may have something to do with it” — efforts of various groups to erase the stigma attached to mental health care and to encourage troubled people to seek help.

That sums up part of the hope of Debra Murray, a member of the board of The Mental Health Coalition of the Greater La Crosse Area, who cited several influences in curbing the numbers, including efforts of the 12-year-old La Crosse Area Suicide Prevention Initiative.

“We’ve had for several years the Suicide Prevention Summit, and I think that group works very hard to give people the tools and resources,” said Murray, director of the MS Mental Health Counseling Program at Viterbo University in La Crosse.

Murray also noted the need to help people survive what she described as the “trifecta” of potential suicides:

Thoughts of taking their own lives.

Abuse of alcohol and other drugs.

Mental health concerns, combined with losing someone who is important in their lives.

“The Affordable Care Act also has improved the chances of people who need access” to mental health services, Murray said.

“There now is a glimmer of hope — before, it wasn’t even on the table,” she said. “I know access continues to be problematic, but there is hope that people can get help.”

Despite waiting lists for mental health care, various agencies are collaborating to find creative ways to manage mental health issues in the meantime, she said.

In addition to the Suicide Prevention Initiative and the Mental Health Coalition, other avenues that have brought the issue to the fore include the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the nearly two-year-old Campaign to Change Direction, which helps people recognize the five signs of mental illness and urge those affected to seek help.

“Being able to talk about it is huge,” Murray said. “The community has worked hard to provide more access and hope, and people are being more creative.”

By the same token, she said, mental health advocates must remain vigilant and not relax because of encouraging statistics.

“It doesn’t take too much of a shift to lose the advantage,” Murray said.

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Mike Tighe is the Tribune newsroom's senior citizen. That said, he don't get no respect from the cub reporters as he goes about his duly-appointed rounds on the health, religion and whatever-else-lands-in-his-inbox beats. Call him at 608-791-8446.

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