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It seems like tragic incidents involving mentally ill people have headlined San Diego’s news more often this summer and it’s made me wonder: Are more people dying by suicide?
Last week’s killing of San Diego police officer Jeremy Henwood spurred me to figure out the answer. Police say an apparently suicidal man shot Henwood in City Heights and another man in El Cajon. Henwood died in a hospital while the other man is recovering. The shooter was killed by police.
Hours later, San Diego police say three California Highway Patrol officers shot and killed an unarmed man who threatened to jump off the Coronado Bridge. Police say the man told the officers he had a gun in his pocket, motioned like he was grabbing it and then was fatally shot.
These incidents followed a San Diego police officer who reportedly killed himself Aug. 1 and a string of four apparent murder suicides since May that resulted in the deaths of seven adults and six children.
Despite the headlines, the actual number of suicides hasn’t been out of the ordinary. The Medical Examiner’s Office counted 213 suicides between January and July this year, mirroring the same period last year and slightly lower than the two years before that. (The total number during the period this year could rise slightly, depending on the result of ongoing examinations of recent deaths.)
Suicides had been gradually increasing since 2005, but last year and this year’s pace buck that trend.
The recent drop is noteworthy because health and law enforcement authorities including San Diego Police Chief Bill Lansdowne have warned of growing mental health problems as governments’ budgets shrink. Here’s an excerpt from a story I wrote about police concerns last year:
San Diego County, bolstered by funding from the 2004 Mental Health Services Act, has increased funding levels over the last few years for its behavior health services, which includes drug treatment programs, mental health programs and the county’s mental health hospital. At the same time though, some officials like Lansdowne say these budget increases haven’t kept pace with rising demand.
Even though the county’s behavior health services budget has increased by 28 percent since 2008, people are now waiting longer for mental health outpatient care. More people are receiving care, but the county is doing it with fewer staff. As these services become stressed, police argue, more people end up in their temporary care.
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For an update, I called Alfredo Aguirre, director of Mental Health Services in the county’s Health and Human Services Agency. He attributed the rise in suicides since 2005 to the county’s growing population and to a lesser degree, higher rates of unemployment and the economic slump. Though police report responding to more incidents involving mental illness, Aguirre said the county’s crisis hotline hasn’t seen a dramatic jump in calls.
However, by coincidence, the county launched a suicide prevention campaign last month. The campaign had been in the works since the Mental Health Services Act passed and happened to come together as recent suicides made headlines. Through advertisements and a new website, county officials hope to urge more people to seek help for those at risk to hurting themselves or others.
So what’s the lesson here? You could say high-profile tragedies tend to overshadow broader trends and it’s never a bad idea to check an assumption with the data. And I’ll be first to say my perception about a rise in suicides was mistaken.
Keegan Kyle is a news reporter for voiceofsandiego.org. He writes about public safety and handles the Fact Check Blog. What should he write about next?
Please contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619.550.5668. You can also find him on Twitter (@keegankyle) and Facebook.
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