Maryland counselors see rise in callers dealing with suicide, economy

CNS — Calls to suicide crisis hotlines in some Maryland counties have increased over the last few years, crisis counselors said, as Marylanders continue to cope with a weak financial environment.

“The (economic) situation is difficult and the outcome is pretty bleak,” Edward Wiggins, the executive director of Baltimore Crisis Response Inc., said. “Not only are things bad, but people don’t see any silver lining to the black cloud…the fact that there’s no end in sight adds to the despair.”

In Baltimore City, Prince George’s County and Montgomery County, crisis counselors said they saw an increase in the number of calls from people at risk of suicide in the last few years.

A crisis hotline in Frederick County also saw an increase in the number of calls dealing with suicide this year. Suzi Borg, the program director of the Mental Health Association of Frederick County Hotline, said there was a 54 percent increase for fiscal year 2011 in the number of calls by a person who is at risk of suicide.

Historically, there has been a correlation between the country’s unemployment rate and its suicide rate. Since the Great Depression, the suicide rate has generally risen or fallen with the country’s business cycles, a study published in the American Journal of Public Health earlier this year found.

Crisis counselors said they could not say for certain why there has been an increase in calls, but said more people phoning in for help are dealing with financial problems.

Borg also said the hotline had seen an increase in calls asking for basic human needs like food and housing. However, while the down economy helps to explain the increase in calls, Borg stressed that individuals are typically driven to suicide for more than one reason.

“(Suicide is) so individual,” she said. “The needs are individual. To look at trends, it’s hard to tie it all together.”

In Prince George’s County, Tim Jansen, the executive director of Community Crisis Services, Inc. of Hyattsville, also said his hotline had seen an increase in the percentage of suicide calls received in the past year — including more calls from people worried about economic problems.

“A lot of folks we’re dealing with — the root of the problem has been financial loss, or home loss,” he said. “It exacerbates everything else.”

Jansen, however, was unsure of how the increase in calls correlates with the number of people committing suicide.

“It’s hard to pinpoint whether more people are struggling with suicide or if we’re just reaching more people,” he said.

Even with the increased calls, Maryland has consistently had one of the lowest suicide rates in the country. In 2007, about nine people out of every 100,000 in the state committed suicide, according to the most recent data published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That rate was the eighth-lowest in the country and was significantly lower than the national suicide rate of 11.8 per 100,000 at the time.

Henry Westray, the coordinator for Youth Suicide Prevention in the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said he could not pinpoint exactly why Maryland has had a lower suicide rate than other areas of the country.

“I would love to say (the low suicide rate) is because of our efforts, but I can’t,” he said.

Westray said he thought that the state had done more to prevent suicides in recent years compared with other states. He said Maryland has aimed its suicide prevention efforts at schools, and has targeted counties that show a higher risk of suicide. Maryland will also soon launch a website aimed specifically at helping youth contemplating suicide, he said.

 — by Brandon Cooper, Capital News Service

Maryland Suicide Rate

This map shows the number of suicides in 2009 per 100,000 people for each Maryland county. Red counties have a suicide rate above 19. Orange counties are between 12 and 19. Yellow counties are between 9 and 12. Green counties have a suicide rate below 9. Source: U.S. Census, 2009 Maryland Vital Statistics Annual Report (Credit: Brandon Cooper/Capital News Service.)