Portland suicides spike
Posted by Mary Mooney, The Oregonian October 23, 2008 20:44PM
Nearly twice as many people have died by or attempted suicide in Portland’s downtown and west side this year, alarming police who are banding together with county mental health experts to figure out why, and how to get immediate care to those in crisis.
Caseworkers suspect that the bleak economy and reports of an upheaval in the local mental health system have intensified people’s sense of despondency, but they don’t know for sure.
Kraig Scattarella/The OregonianCentral Precinct Officer Betty Woodward successfully talked a suicidal man down from the railing on the west end of the Burnside Bridge on Jan. 7 during the weekday lunch hour.
“Does it concern us? Absolutely,” said David Hidalgo, senior operations manager for Multnomah County’s Mental Health and Addictions Services. “There’s a whole group of distressed individuals that we need to be able to make sure services are available to.”
The county intends to examine the cases further to figure out whether the people involved had been receiving care from local providers, or if a specific population has fallen through a gap.
“Are they in the system? Are they insured? Are they people who lost their jobs, or is it from general distress from the world we live in?” Hidalgo said.
Between Jan. 1 and Sept. 20, the Portland Police Bureau’s Central Precinct recorded 61 suicides or attempted suicides, compared with 33 during the same period a year ago. The precinct — which essentially covers the city’s core and west side — typically is the nexus for public suicides because of its high-rises and bridges spanning the Willamette River.
Stunned by the numbers, Police Chief Rosie Sizer and Central Precinct Cmdr. Mike Reese recently reached out to county officials to talk about what to do.
The result: Within the next month, Central Precinct police plan to start sharing their incident reports on every suicide attempt with the county so experts can provide follow-up care to people who survive.
“That hasn’t been done in the past,” Hidalgo said. “That’s a new link for us.”
Providing that support is crucial, said Dr. Kevin Smith, a psychiatrist at Oregon Health & Science University who spoke at a recent Portland forum on suicide. “If someone has prior suicide attempts, they have a history, and we know history repeats itself,” he said.
Throughout the county, the number of people who die from suicide has slowly risen over the past few years, but the statistics don’t reflect attempted suicides. This year’s westside spike is significant because the figures are more comprehensive and signal what could be more than an anomaly.
Reports earlier this year on the uncertainty of Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare’s financial stability might have stirred fear among mentally ill people, county officials and police said. In May, a $2.5 million government bailout lifted the state’s largest provider of mental health services from the brink of bankruptcy.
“That could be another contributor,” Hidalgo said. “Being the local mental health authority, one of the big things is that people need to know how to access care.”
Because of Cascadia’s financial crisis, the county transferred some clinics and services to other providers, but officials say in the end they lost no services.
The state’s Suicide Hotline has fielded a number of calls this year from people who are depressed, scared, living in their cars, lost their jobs and can’t afford rent.
“We’re definitely getting a spike in calls from people who are more concerned about issues impacting their everyday life,” said hot line director Leslie Storm. The line fielded 28,419 calls in 2007, up from 24,308 in 2006. As of Oct. 15 this year, 18,002 calls came in, and the count each month is growing, Storm said.
• Oregon Partnership’s Suicide Prevention Hotline: 800-273-Talk
• Multnomah County Mental Health Crisis Line: 503-988-4888 or toll free 800-716-9769, available 24 hours, seven days a week
• Urgent Walk-in Clinic: Open 7 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., seven days a week, at 2415 S.E. 43rd Ave., use west entrance at Southeast Division and 42nd Avenue
• Project Respond mobile outreach: Available 24 hours a day, seven days a week; call county call center at 503-988-4888
In downtown Portland, the majority of the suicides and attempted suicides are very public. Dozens of businesspeople walking to their jobs or lunch, tourists staying at a downtown hotel and security officers posted outside the Central Library have seen people leap from buildings or bridges. Some observers have required counseling of their own, left traumatized from seeing jumpers fall to their deaths.
A 54-year-old man who suffered from bipolar disorder jumped off a downtown parking garage at Southwest Ninth Avenue and Morrison Street on a weekday morning in early March, narrowly missing pedestrians as he fell to his death.
Last month, a 38-year-old woman who had complained her insurance no longer covered her medication jumped to her death from the same downtown parking garage in the middle of the afternoon. A security official at the Multnomah County Central Library was the first on the scene.
Portland Officer Betty Woodward, who patrols downtown and was among the first Portland officers trained in crisis intervention, said the increased collaboration between police and county experts will be a “huge step forward.”
Often, police call an ambulance and the survivor goes to a hospital, but the officers aren’t privy to what happens next. Woodward said she’s tried to “hunt down” a person’s doctor or caseworker, but it’s not easy, and most officers don’t have time to do that. This is where the county plans to step in under the new plan.
Reese, the Central Precinct commander, has asked Cascadia mental health workers to address his officers at roll calls and is reminding dispatchers to send crisis intervention officers to suicide calls.
“We want officers to be aware that this is going on, and know what services are still in place that they can refer people to,” he said.
Woodward has successfully talked suicidal people off bridges, but also has lost people she tried to persuade not to jump. The calls take a toll on officers, she said.
“When you arrive to a call, and it’s too late, I don’t have good words for that,” she said. “You don’t even get to try. You can’t do anything. It’s horrible, pitiful, an absolute waste.”
— Maxine Bernstein; firstname.lastname@example.org