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Suicide -- Threats, attempts on rise

Situation difficult for all involved

POSTED: January 12, 2013 12:02 a.m.
 

The topic is morbid and unpleasant, but the calls came in more frequently this past year on Forsyth County first responder radio.

Hearing the word, 911 dispatchers calmly relay the emergency from what is surely an emotional scene on the other end of the line — suicide.

In 2012, the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office received 138 calls for threats of suicide, the most in a year and a number that’s been increasing over the past decade.

The number of attempts in 2012 nearly doubled from the previous year, rising from 66 to 101.

Despite the increase in those considering or trying to take their own lives, the actual number of suicides seems to be on the decline, falling from a county peak of 23 in 2010 to 11 in 2012.

The incoming calls, however, haven’t gone unnoticed by local officials, emergency personnel and others who assist in the crisis situations.

After 12 years on the job, Lauren McDonald left his post as coroner at the end of 2012, with a hope that those considering suicide can reach out for help before taking permanent action.

Over the past 10 years, he’s been summoned to 148 scenes where people took their own lives.

“You always wish you could get to somebody and talk to them and let them find out that life is really not that bad,” McDonald said. “I just wish we could help people and let them know there’s help for them.”

A call for help

Every suicide threat that comes in to Forsyth County 911 is taken seriously. Thankfully though, most end peacefully.

The information given on the phone determines how many people and what types of first responders will be sent.

“Any threat of suicide, we consider it a dangerous scene,” said Jason Shivers, Forsyth County Fire Department division chief.

Law enforcement personnel make first contact for the safety of everyone involved, Shivers said, while the emergency medical technicians and fire personnel stand by.

“The more activity that you send to an incident typically will make it worse,” he said. “We don’t want to aggravate the situation, and we’re not going to commit resources to something that’s still yet to happen.”

Threats rarely turn into attempts, which is when the medical and fire personnel more often need to get involved, he said.

The sheriff’s office typically sends a minimum of one deputy and one supervisor to a threat call, depending on the situation, said Capt. Mark Flowers, head of the north precinct’s uniform patrol division.

“The majority of the time on your threats, all we’ve got to do is go and talk to them,” Flowers said. “They usually go with the medical personnel to get help. That’s our No. 1 priority is to get them help.”

If people don’t want to leave and show signs of endangering themselves or others, the law allows deputies to take people into custody. They will be taken to an emergency receiving facility for psychiatric care.

Flowers said the calls for threats usually increase during the holiday season. And in recent years, those threats have gone up as the economy has been unstable.

“People are hurting trying to get by,” he said, “and there’s a lot of stress on people.”

He said collection agencies share a portion of those threat reports, as a person in debt may threaten to harm themselves when faced with a call or visit from a collector.

In the case of an attempt, Flowers said the sheriff’s office must also respond with emergency medical technicians and the fire department to ensure the safety of all involved in what can be a volatile situation.

When a suicide call comes through, the sheriff’s office must investigate the death to ensure no foul play.

In his former role as coroner, McDonald said he never assumed a death was a suicide unless it was something obvious, such as when a person used a gun or left a note.

When someone uses a gun, McDonald said it’s usually clear the person intended to take their own life.

But when it comes to pills, it could be a way to get attention or it could be an honest mistake of mixing medications or forgetting doses.

Following a suicide, it’s those still alive who are left in the wake.

At the sheriff’s office, two full-time victim advocates help families deal with a suicide when possible.

Rosetta Smith, who’s been a victim advocate with the county for more than three years, said it’s mostly about “giving resources to family members, grieving counseling resources.”

“We will stay with the family member until other family can come and be with them, we’ll contact their church … or any other family members that they just can’t call themselves because they’re too emotional,” she said. “We basically hold their hand through it all.

“We answer their questions … and we lead them in the right direction. We’re mostly there for the family.”

Smith said she and the other advocate often also assist at a crime scene so family members can focus on their lost loved one.

 

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