Montco suicide rate is up alarmingly

Posted: July 02, 2013

Suicide rates have risen nationwide during the economic downturn, but in Montgomery County, the upward trend is alarmingly steep.

From 2005 to 2011, the county's suicide total rose 83.9 percent, according to state Health Department data.

Over the same period, the rates in Bucks, Chester, and Delaware Counties fluctuated year to year, but increased only slightly, following the trend in Pennsylvania and the United States.

Montgomery County had traditionally been below the national average. From 1990 to 2005, the county's average rate was 9.67 per 100,000 people. (The national rate was 12.43 in 2010.)

Then the numbers started going up - 69 victims in 2006, 75 in 2007, 89 in 2008, 99 in 2009, 107 in 2010, and 114 in 2011.

The county's 2011 rate (13.25 per 100,000) is now roughly even with those of its neighbors.

Public health and crisis intervention agencies are continuing outreach efforts, but so far they have struggled to pinpoint a reason for the county's precipitous rise.

Tony Salvatore, director of development for Montgomery County Emergency Service, a nonprofit acute-crisis center, said the change can't be attributed to population growth.

"The population did go up from 2000 to 2010, but that was in groups that aren't contributing to the suicide rate," he said, noting that white people make up about 90 percent of suicides, while most of the new county residents are nonwhite.

Despite the recent increase in media attention on bullying and celebrity suicides, the problem is overwhelmingly concentrated in adult white males. Eighty percent of suicide victims are male, and 72 percent are between 25 and 64 years old.

Salvatore called baby boomers the "gloomiest generation," noting that they had unusually high suicide rates during adolescence. As they age and encounter more physical ailments, lose partners, and have easier access to prescription drugs, their rate of suicide will climb even higher, Salvatore fears.

Stereotypical as it may sound, Salvatore said society's macho pressures are to blame for men's greater incidence of suicide.

"We're all made to think we're going to be the president, the star quarterback, the CEO. Most of us don't rise to that," he said.

Men are also more likely to drink alcohol and own or use guns, factors that may not directly cause suicide but that can help facilitate it.

Linda Falasco, a therapist in Newtown Square, began specializing in grief counseling after her brother killed himself in the mid-1990s.

A majority of clients come to her because they've lost a brother, husband, father, or friend to suicide, she said. And most of them had been dealing with some sort of financial struggle.

"Women, we talk a lot. We share what we feel," Falasco said. For men, "Society has put on them the pressure of 'You should be out there providing, you should be emotionally strong, able to cope and handle everything.' "

In a tight job market, with foreclosures looming and taxes rising, men may have been finding it harder to cope and were "more reluctant to ask for help," Falasco said.

Even people who have mental-health resources at their disposal and are trained to handle crisis situations can be silenced by the stigma associated with mental illness, Salvatore said.

A tragic example of that came in February, when a Lower Merion police officer took his life in a public park. It's unclear whether he had sought help.

"The tragedy is that suicide, unlike cancer, is preventable," Salvatore said. "It has signs, warnings, and methods of prevention and treatment."

His organization and others across the region conduct outreach on how to recognize and intervene with people who may be having suicidal thoughts. They use the acronym ACE:

Ask: calmly but directly, "Do you think you might try to hurt yourself?"

Care: Listen to them while removing any means of self-harm.

Engage: Don't leave the person alone. Call for help: 1-800-273-TALK, 1-800-SUICIDE, or 911.

Contact Jessica Parks at 610-313-8117,, or follow on Twitter @JS_Parks.

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