As suicide numbers rise, medical examiner wants more work done with families

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT) - After a promising turnaround in 2016, suicide numbers in La Crosse County were back up again in 2017, and 2018 began with a suicide on New Year's Day.

While a lot of work has been done in the community promoting suicide awareness and prevention resources over the past few years, La Crosse County Medical Examiner Timothy Candahl said there is more that can be done.

Compared to national statistics, suicide numbers in La Crosse County are high. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the average rate of suicide per 100,000 people nationally is 13.5.

La Crosse County has a population of about 118,000, but Candahl said that by the time autopsies are in, La Crosse County will be at 24 suicides in 2017 -- a suicide rate of a little over 20 per 100,000 people.

"It doesn't surprise me,” he said. "Sounds like a broken record, it's the same thing, same thing. Where are the answers?"

Last year’s figure is up seven from 17 in 2016, when numbers came down from 24 in 2015 and a high of 26 in 2014.

"Why has it gone up and down? I have no idea whatsoever,” Candahl said.

Registered nurse Geri Mulliner said she feels “sadness that we haven't made more of a dent in it."

It's not for lack of trying.

"Our reaction is that we have more work to do,” she said.

Mulliner is a nurse at Gundersen Health System and a member of the La Crosse Area Suicide Prevention Initiative, which has been around since 2004.

"I think we've made a great deal of progress as a community,” she said, such as diminishing suicide's stigma over time.

"The fact that we're sitting here talking about it is huge,” Mulliner said.

Twice as many men as women killed themselves in 2017, and guns were the most used method.

Mulliner said that's why it's so important to make sure guns are locked up in or removed from homes where people may be suicidal.

She can't say why suicides went up in 2017.

"We also don't know the number of people we've prevented from suicide, either," Mulliner said.

"I think awareness has been really great, it’s just we're missing it somewhere,” Candahl said.

That somewhere, he said, is suicide victims' families.

"When families are able to get over the grieving period and want to discuss it, that's when you're going to get answers.”

Candahl believes those answers could help bring the suicide numbers down for good.

"It makes the families feel like they are participating in preventing this from happening to someone else,” he said.

Candahl said he does know a few area families who lost someone to suicide interested in sharing their experiences with him.
He also said HIPAA law, which provides medical privacy, has been a major roadblock for families with suicidal loved ones, because they aren't able to find out information that may be helpful in their suicidal family member's medical records.

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