Mental-health advocates who had been nervous that La Crosse County was on a record suicide pace last year are relieved that their fears weren’t realized. But they remain unsettled that the tally of 24 people who took their own lives is second only to the 26 in 2014.
They also are doubling down on efforts to provide hope and light to those who are experiencing darkness and despondency that could lead to suicidal thoughts.
“We must keep the positive side that we’re making a difference,” said Judy Shoults, a member of the La Crosse Area Suicide Prevention Initiative who openly shares her own battle with depression in her quest to help others.
“We go on faith that we’re making a difference,” the Onalaska woman said in an interview Thursday.
An unsolvable mystery remains in determining the number of people who might have considered suicide but opted instead to seek help through the initiative, hospitals' behavioral heath programs and other resources.
“How many more might there have been without us?” Shoults said.
The fact that three people died to suicide in January had concerned officials, and the worry increased as the count reached 19 by early September, raising the specter of setting another devastating record.
“We were on a record pace, but thank God it didn’t keep going,” La Crosse County Medical Examiner Tim Candahl said Wednesday, with one day remaining in 2015.
The total included 15 males and nine women, Candahl said. The gender breakdown was similar to the previous — and record — year, when 18 men and eight women took their own lives.
The statistics obviously do not include suicide attempts that did not result in death, although conventional wisdom is that more women than men attempt suicide, but more men die because they choose more lethal methods.
For example, the method breakdown last year among men included 10 who died of gunshots, four in hangings and one overdose, compared with four female overdoses, and one each of hanging, drowning, poison, asphyxiation and gunshot.
Mental health advocates are concerned that the numbers have continued to rise, despite efforts to increase awareness and redouble endeavors to promote assistance for people who might be considering or are at risk of suicide.
The lowest number of suicides in the county in recent years was recorded in 2010, when nine people took their own lives. In 2009, 12 died, while 14 died in both 2011 and 2012.
Echoing the mantra of the Campaign to Change Direction, a national mental health initiative launched in La Crosse in March, Shoults exhorted people to take more interest in each other and not be afraid to talk about mental-health issues and seek help.
“If somebody says something, take them seriously,” she said. “If somebody says, ‘I’m not worth anything,’ don’t just say, ‘Of course you are’ and walk away. Instead, say, ‘Why would you say that?’ and help them try to figure it out.”
Doing so shows people that others are interested in their well-being, she said.
Although the precise causes of depression and suicide may seem elusive, Shoults suggested that social media may be part of the problem.
“With social media, we’ve gotten everybody disconnected, and we’ve got to be connected,” she said. “On any given day, we’ve got to talk to people — or even just smile at a stranger.”
While talking about mental-health issues is becoming more open, the topic remains anathema to some because of its continuing stigma, she said.
Shoults agreed with the suggestion that the knee-jerk reaction to attribute incidents such as mass shootings to mental illness drives people further into isolation.
“Let’s not go right away with blaming mental illness” when other factors could be at work, she said.
People also need to take responsibility for their own mental health, as well as that of others, she said.
“If your ankle hurts, you make an appointment to have it checked," Shoults said. “It’s the same with your mental health. Get it checked.”
If nothing else, at least call 2-1-1, the Great Rivers crisis line that provides 24-hour confidential crisis information and referrals, she said, adding that unburdening oneself to a stranger often offers a comfort not available from acquaintances.
Individuals should not be intimidated about seeking psychiatric help and, if they face delays in getting an appointment, talk to their primary physicians, she said.
“A psychiatrist scares people. Then tell your primary care physician, ‘I’m not feeling right. I’m not sleeping well. I’m not eating,’” so the doctors can advise them, she said.
“When I was at my lowest points, I couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Shoults said. “But my doctor saw it for me when I couldn’t.”
In an effort to understand suicidal motivations, Candahl last year became the first Wisconsin coroner certified to perform psychological autopsies during two days of training sponsored by the American Association of Suicidology.
Three families have indicated interest in participating in the process, said Candahl, who is awaiting final word from them on schedule sessions.
During psychological autopsies, family members and friends are invited to talk about those who have lost their lives to suicide and check what had been happening to them to plumb warning signs such as depression and any inclination to harm themselves, he said.
"It's to engage family members and to help mental health people identify causes," he said.
The problem is far from local, with federal and state statistics showing that suicide is the 10th-leading cause of death.
But solutions can start locally, Shoults said.
“I wish I had that magic wand,” she said, “but it’s not there. We’ve got to care about each other. We are social beings, and we have to connect.”