The total of 14 suicides so far this year in La Crosse County has the potential to duplicate the recent lows of 2011 and 2012.
The tally, about half of the record-setting 26 suicides in 2014, is an encouraging sign, mental health advocates says.
On the other hand, mental health professionals find a clear explanation for the drop nearly as elusive as they did for the spikes in 2013, 2014 and 2015 — but they hope it is at least partly the result of their efforts to increase community awareness of suicide and how to curb it.
“I wish we did know so we can keep doing it,” said Christine Hughes, a member of the La Crosse Area Suicide Prevention Initiative, which hosts events and provides materials to educate people about resources to help those considering harming themselves.
With a month remaining in 2016, the number of people who have taken their own lives this year stands at 14, compared with 22 last year and 26 in 2014, said La Crosse County Medical Examiner Tim Candahl.
If the number remains at 14, it would tie the totals for 2011 and 2012 and be lower than the 16 recorded in 2010 and 18 in 2013, according to Candahl’s statistics.
As far as the ultimate explanation for the optimistic downswing, “it’s hard to know — it’s the hardest part, because we don’t know for sure” how many people might have considered suicide but changed their minds after receiving help, said Hughes, a clinical therapist at Mayo Clinic Health System-Franciscan Healthcare in La Crosse.
“We don’t really hear the success stories here,” she said. “But I think people are paying more attention. We hear people talking about the subject more and more, and they are not afraid to say the word.
“We hear personal stories, and in general, now people talk,” Hughes said.
Echoing that sentiment is Geri Mulliner, another member of the 12-year-old La Crosse Area Suicide Prevention Initiative, who said, “When we started the initiative, people weren’t willing to talk about it.”
As the shroud of secrecy has been removed and the topic has become a matter of public discussion, increasing numbers of people who are troubled and/or depressed are seeking help and receiving treatment, said Mulliner, a registered nurse who works in behavioral health for Gundersen Health System.
The 14 deaths this year are split between males and females, Candahl said.
That means the number of women committing suicide this year has tracked closely with the seven recorded in 2015 and eight in 2014, although it is markedly higher than the pace of two to three a year extending back to 2009, according to the medical examiner’s statistics.
Meanwhile, the number of men killing themselves this year amounts to major drops from 15 in 2015, 18 in 2014 and 16 in 2013. The male tally in 2010 was 13, with 11 each in 2012 and 2011, and nine in 2009.
Those who have taken their lives this year range as high as 89 in age, but “I’ve not seen a lot of younger ones,” Candahl said, which marks a departure from previous trends.
The reason for that also is illusory, although Hughes speculated that it may be the result of the fact that more young adults have been able to receive mental health care and treatment because the Affordable Care Act allows them to remain on their parents’ insurance policies until they are 26.
Guns are the leading means of suicides in the county, Candahl said, with prescription drug overdoses accounting for about one-third.
“With prescription drugs, it is hard to determine intent,” he said. “So we rule according to whether there were prior attempts or other incidents.”
The Suicide Prevention Initiative, which sponsors an annual Suicide Prevention Summit and awareness event and Dance for Hope, among other activities, is by no means the sole standard-bearer against suicide.
Also involved in the cause are the Mental Health Coalition of the Greater La Crosse Area, the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the nearly two-year-old Campaign to Change Direction, which works to help people recognize the five signs of mental illness and urge those affected to seek help.
Along those lines, local mental health advocates also employ the QPR approach, which means question, persuade and refer to steer people struggling with mental health and stress issues toward help, Hughes said.
Mental health officials encourage people to be especially vigilant for signs among relatives, friends and acquaintances during this time of year, when many people become blue during the holiday season.
Statewide, more than 700 Wisconsin residents take their own lives each year, making the suicide rate four times the homicide rate, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. In addition, about 5,500 Badger State residents are hospitalized because of intentional, self-inflicted injuries.
Between 2007 and 2011, the most recent years for which statistics are available, the cost of inpatient hospitalizations because of self-inflicted injuries in Wisconsin was more than $369 million, according to DHS.
Statewide, more than 700 Wisconsin residents take their own lives each year, making the suicide rate four times the homicide rate.