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Suicide rates drop in Sonoma County as economy improves

A spike in North Bay suicide rates at the height of the recession can be tied, almost certainly, to the economy’s abysmal state, experts say.

And as the economy rebounds, data shows suicide rates are normalizing, too, in Sonoma County.

Unfortunately, the same thing can’t be said nationally, or even statewide. In California, the latest statistics show rates lower than their peak, but not by much. Nationally, the suicide rate still seems to be climbing.

With suicide, survivors are often left asking why. Unfortunately, it’s often hard to know for sure.

The best that local experts can offer are educated guesses.

With regard to the spike, and now normalization, of rates in Sonoma County, the economy likely played a large role, said Nikki Buckstead, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Sonoma County.

“Suicide rates seem to be strongly influenced by the state of the economy,” she said.

Melanie Lopes, co-director of the North Bay Suicide Prevention Program, agreed.

“I would say that a significant (economic) loss is a major trigger for suicide,” she said. “A loss of employment, a loss of housing. Those two things would be considered significant (contributing factors),” she said.

A widely cited study from the University of Oxford, published in June 2014, blames the recession for “at least 10,000 additional economic suicides between 2008 and 2010” throughout Europe and North America.

The study shows that the rate of suicide during the recession “rose in both men and women, but that these increases are about fourfold greater among men.”

Suicide, while not directly related to the economy, is directly related to three factors that are, themselves, influenced by the economy, the study says.

Researchers Aaron Reeves, Martin McKee and David Stuckler note three major ways that economic shocks can potentially worsen mental health, and so lead to suicide: job loss, debt and foreclosure.

Economically, 2010 was arguably the worst year for Sonoma County residents. Unemployment peaked that March at 11.4 percent. Nearly 3,700 local borrowers defaulted on their mortgages and banks seized almost 2,000 properties in foreclosure proceedings.

That same year, the suicide rate for adults ages 45 to 64 rose to an unprecedented high: 24.6 deaths per 100,000 residents in Sonoma County, according to the California Department of Public Health. The rate since has dropped to 16.2 deaths per 100,000 residents, matching the county’s pre-recession 2006 rate and below both state and national levels.

People in the 45- to 64-year-old demographic - and in particular, white men in that demographic - are largely considered to be the group in Sonoma County most at risk for suicide.

An average of 32 county residents in that age group killed themselves annually between 2007 and 2011, or a total of 162 people. They accounted for 47 percent of the 343 suicides in Sonoma County during that period.

“It’s hard to ignore the (economic) data and statistics as being significant contributing factors (of the increase in suicides),” Buckstead said. “When (people) feel that sense of hope, they think that, OK, everything’s going to improve here in the near future. When they don’t have that sense of hope, it can drive people into a depressed state, which can be challenging.”

Steven Stack, a prominent suicide researcher at Wayne State University in Detroit said that financial strain can influence suicide indirectly, through an increase in alcohol consumption and marital discord. He also noted that an unemployed person is more likely to move to another region to find employment, thereby “breaking suicide-preventative bonds, such as those to friends and relatives.”

Since 2010, the suicide rate for Sonoma County adults has steadily decreased as the local economy has rebounded.

Unemployment and foreclosure numbers have dropped significantly over the past five years. The latest jobless rate, 4.2 percent, is down by nearly two-thirds from the peak in 2010.

Foreclosures have dropped sharply, as well. In 2015, just 208 homes were taken back by banks or sold to third parties at foreclosure auctions, one tenth of the number recorded in 2010.

Experts think those facts, coupled with the county’s increasing focus on improving mental health services, might be the reason.

“Just in general, I think Sonoma County has a lot more resources and availability of services and prevention efforts,” Buckstead said. “I think this county might just have a tendency to talk about it maybe more than others.”

Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane, a vocal advocate for suicide awareness following the 2010 suicide of her husband, Peter Kingston, agreed. She also noted that California’s coastal counties rebounded from the recession much more quickly than areas farther inland.

“I think the message is: Let’s pay attention to the people that we love,” Zane said. “Let’s recognize that when someone loses a job or loses a house or loses a marriage, these are losses that result in situational depression that can lead to death.”

You can reach Staff Writer Christi Warren at 521-5205 or christi.warren@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @SeaWarren.

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