Suicide represents a tragic problem in society, one that appears to be worsening per some metrics while getting no worse according to others. It may, however, be a definitional problem, in that some cases of suicide are not so clear cut, and that addressing both suicide and drug addiction is crucial in combating both.

    The topic of suicide is one that still manages to elude conversation in all but the most intimate of settings: it’s a painful subject, particularly for those who survive loved ones who’ve made the decision to take his or her own life. But it’s becoming one that’s increasingly difficult to ignore, given that the national suicide rate has risen dramatically over the last two decades.
    With the exception of Nevada, every state in the country experienced a rise in its suicide rates from 1999 to 2016, according to a Centers for Disease Control report in July. In that span, Illinois saw an increase of 22.8 percent.
    “It’s a devastating thing,” said Joe Vaughan, executive director of the Institute for Human Resources. “One thing that we say about suicide is that whatever pain a person is experiencing gets passed on to someone else.”
    Suicide has become the 10th leading cause of death for Americans, according to the CDC. On a more local level, however, the suicide rate in Livingston County has remained in relative stasis from the years of 2013 to 2017, with nine suicide deaths in 2013, six in 2014, eight in 2015, seven in 2016 and nine in 2017.
    Why the discrepancy? While the timeframes are different, a closer examination of the local numbers over the last five years may indicate something of a classification problem: a number of drug overdose deaths in most of those years were cited as “undetermined” by the Livingston County Coroner’s office.
    According to an October 2017 report in the Huffington Post, a mental health researcher believed there was evidence of a link between suicide and drug overdose.
    “There are, of course, links between addictions in general and opioid addictions in particular and suicide,” Joseph Gordon, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, told the publication. “There is a lot of concern that many of the overdose deaths could be suicides. We need to learn more about the prevalence of suicidality amongst opioid addicted individuals.”
    From his own perspective, Livingston County Coroner Danny Watson stated that without ample evidence of suicide, classifying a death as such was a difficult proposition.
    “The last figure I saw was that only something like 23 percent of people leave notes when committing suicide,” he said. “I have very seldom come across anyone that said that they were committing suicide with drugs. But I’ve seen toxicology reports when people have ingested enough drugs to kill anyone on earth; I’ve talked to family and they’ve indicated that the individual was depressed  — but then there’s no note.
    “You can get into a real grey area with how that’s classified.”
    Watson added, however, that at least as far as a drug like heroin was concerned, its combination with the very potent (and, typically, very lethal) opioid fentanyl, usually without the knowledge of the person taking the drug, made determining death all the murkier.
    Regarding the clearer upward trend of suicide on the national and state level, the obvious question is “Why?” Vaughn noted myriad factors may play into the rise. One thing he singled out in particular was an increased societal emphasis on technological communications rather than personal, face-to-face interactions.
    “I think we’re now at an awareness of mental health and the potential for suicide than at any other time, but the suicide rates across the country have increased,” he said. “Some of it may have to do with technology, as far as we’re not communicating with each other as much as we used to. We’re communicating via text or social media, but that’s not the same as personal engagement. We’re not having direct communication which creates more stress and anxiety.”
    Other stressors that Vaughan believed might bear some of the blame included economic factors;  however, he admitted this was a difficult avenue of meaningful study, given the different metrics that exist to measure economic health.
    “One reason it’s so hard to say if it’s any one thing or two things or three things is that there is a valid case for so many reasons (being contributory towards the rise of suicide rates),” he said. “It could be that they’re all contributing in some way, or it could be something we’re not even seeing yet.”
    Vaughan said that a recurring theme in evaluations done by professionals at IHR that a person was at-risk for suicide was a feeling of “hopelessness,” and that besides turning to ending their own lives, hopeless people may look to other means of alleviating that feeling.
    “It’s not at all uncommon for people with that feeling of hopelessness decide to turn to drugs,” he said. “Where suicide may come into play there is that there’s no fear of death when you’re using heroin, let’s say. They’ll use that heroin to the point where they get a good high, but if they die in the meantime, they take that into consideration and they’re not afraid of that.”
    While the problem of an upward trend of suicide is as disturbing as it is daunting, Vaughan said that organizations like IHR are taking it seriously.
    “One of things we’re doing is, over the last five years, we’re screening more high school kids for social-emotional issues, mental health issues at beginning of the year, so we can flag some kids as perhaps just needing someone to talk to,” he said. “There’s definitely a greater emphasis on preventative care than ever before, so getting them treatment is crucial in what we do.
    “That also obviously includes treatment for drug dependency problems, as well.”
    “Our job is to deal with the deceased and to deal with the families of the deceased,” Watson concluded. “Something you learn doing what we do, and talking with the people we talk to, is how preventable some of these deaths are. It’s just figuring out how to get people the help they need.”