Finney: Suicides are rising dramatically in Iowa; Here's what people are doing to stop it
Watch for these warning signs if you suspect a loved one might be suicidal.
Mary Neubauer went to a movie this fall.
She knew the film included a suicide scene.
Mary and her husband, Larry Loss, lost their teenage son, Sergei Neubauer, to suicide in September 2017. Mary found him at their Clive home.
She thought Hollywood couldn’t produce anything as terrible as what she’d witnessed with her own eyes.
She was wrong. The scene, though not graphic, triggered an emotional spiral for Mary. She cried and suffered flashbacks for weeks.
Mary considered taking time off from work at the Iowa Lottery, where she and Larry are executives.
“The hurt,” Mary said, “never goes away.”
That cycle of grief and pain repeated itself hundreds of times in Iowa last year.
Some 476 Iowans died by suicide in 2017, per the latest data from the Iowa Department of Health and the Center for Disease Control.
That number has increased by more than 66 percent since 2000, including nearly doubling in the last decade.
Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death both in Iowa and the nation.
“All the reports indicate this is a health crisis and is well on its way to being an epidemic,” said Peggy Huppert, executive director of the Iowa chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Suicides by Iowans tied or surpassed 17-year highs in 10 of 16 age groups tracked by the state. Iowans between 55-74 amounted for nearly a quarter of all suicides in 2017.
The problem crosses all state borders. A June report from the CDC showed just one state, Nevada, had a 1 percent drop in the suicide rate between 1999-2016.
Iowa’s suicide rate was 13.4 per 100,000 in 2017, rising nearly 37 percent since 1999.
“This increase in the suicide rate is extremely discouraging,” Christine Moutier, chief medical officer of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, said in a statement. “We must address suicide as a public health issue. Suicide is preventable.”
Suicide prevention is tricky because unlike many other epidemics, the causes are wide-ranging.
Sergei Neubauer struggled with severe mental illness brought on by early childhood traumas suffered while growing up in Russia before he was adopted by Mary Neubauer and Larry Loss.
Though mental health seems the most intuitive link, studies have connected suicide to everything from economic stress to relationship struggles and opioid addiction.
The June CDC report showed that 54 percent of the suicides recorded nationally between 1999-2016 had no known connection with a mental health condition.
“We need more science on the issue,” said Pat McGovern, suicide prevention coordinator for the Iowa health department. “We are in a suicidal crisis and there isn’t one single catch-all effort that can be made.”
Iowa officials received grant money to increase education about suicide for doctors, nurses and other medical professionals who may not have a background in psychiatric care but are more likely to have regular contact with people.
For example, when I go to visit my primary care provider, I’m asked a series of questions about mental health and if I’ve had thoughts of suicide.
I’m treated for anxiety and depression and struggled enough with suicidal ideation that I missed five weeks of work earlier this year.
Every visit to my primary care doctor includes me answering a nine-question form about my mental health status. My doctor and I discuss what treatment I’m receiving.
McGovern hopes the grant money will push those kinds of conversations out to more clinics and hospitals statewide.
Since 2013, my friend Brian Carico of Johnston, who lost both his father and son to suicide, has advocated for a bill requiring teachers and school administrators to be trained to recognize signs of potential suicidal ideation.
The latest bill was debated by the Iowa House last winter but ultimately withdrawn.
As someone who lives with suicidal thoughts in his head, I often think of the words of Susanna Kaysen, author of “Girl, Interrupted,” an excellent first-person account of living with mental illness.
“The question I’d asked months earlier, ‘Why not kill myself?’ Dead I wouldn’t have …to keep debating the question,” Kaysen wrote. “Actually, that was the only part of myself I wanted to kill: the part that wanted to kill herself, that dragged me down into the suicide debate and made every station window, kitchen implement and subway station a rehearsal for tragedy.”
In 2017, 476 Iowans lost their debate and the echoes of those tragedies rattle uncounted more.
Ask Mary Neubauer. She’s colloquially known as the “lottery lady” because of her job as a spokeswoman for the games.
But her son's death forced her into speaking up for those lost and those left behind, first with a beautiful obituary for Sergei and again and again with lawmakers and anyone willing to listen.
She’s encouraged by the efforts made by the state, but she knows there needs to be more. So Mary keeps talking, even though every time she does she relives that terrible day in September 2017.
I have no solutions. I’m not a scientist nor a lawmaker, but I believe Mary might have given one of the best suicide prevention tactics in a simple statement she made to me in an interview after Sergei’s death:
"Be kind," she said. "My God, just take a moment to be kind."
Columnist Daniel P. Finney grew up in Winterset and east Des Moines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 515-284-8144.
Suicide signs, counseling:
Specialists say many suicides can be headed off through counseling.
Free help can be found by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, (800) 273-8255. Callers can get immediate help from a crisis specialist, and they can get referrals to local counseling. The group's website is suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
Counselors say people should seek help if they see these signs in themselves or others:
- Talking about wanting to hurt or kill oneself.
- Seeking access to guns, pills or other suicide means.
- Talking or writing an unusual amount about death or dying.
- Feeling hopeless or trapped.
- Withdrawing from friends and family.
- Feeling rage or uncontrolled anger.
- Acting recklessly or engaging in risky activities.
Experts also say family and friends should try to limit access to guns by people who exhibit signs of serious depression.