Suicide count rises in county

Last November, Oak Harbor police responded to a report that a Navy man was armed with a .40-caliber pistol and had threatened to “blow his own head off,” according to court documents.

The police reported that the 24-year-old man was scheduled to go on deployment the next day and had become suicidal after he was arrested for driving under the influence that night. As officers arrived, he shot four or five times through the front door.

The incident ended well. Nobody was hurt and officers arrested the armed man for reckless endangerment.

Yet such occurrences have become more and more common in Oak Harbor and Island County over the last decade. Law enforcement has seen a significant increase in calls about suicidal people in just the last couple of years, while the number of actual suicides has also increased.

Nobody can say with certainty whether the trend is due to the recession or the fact that North Whidbey has a large military community involved in two wars.

But Jackie Henderson, director of the county’s Human Services Department, said it’s clear that a lot of people are hurting in the community. The county’s unemployment rate is currently at 10.2 percent while homelessness continues to grow.

“It’s pretty dismal in the world for a lot of people,” she said. “People call us every day, just crying. The eligibility for certain programs has just narrowed and narrowed and narrowed.”

“They are desperate. Just desperate,” she added.

Undersheriff Kelly Mauck with the Island County Sheriff’s Office said deputies responded to 73 reports of suicidal subjects in 2001. By 2009, they handled 198 such calls. And in 2010, the number of calls jumped again by 16 percent to 231.

The Oak Harbor Police Department had a similar increase in calls about suicide threats, from 118 in 2009 to 129 in 2010.

Island County Coroner Robert Bishop said the number of people who committed suicide in the county increased significantly in the last couple of years, though the overall numbers are relatively small for defining trends.

Bishop investigated 12 suicides in 2009 and 15 in 2010, plus there was another 2010 case in which he was unable to determine if it was suicide or an  accident. So far this year, he’s dealt with four or possibly five people who’ve killed themselves.

The numbers, he said, don’t include the cases in which people jump off Deception Pass Bridge and a body is never found. They also don’t include the people who died under the new physician-assisted suicide law. So far this year, there’s been three such cases.

Bishop said he hasn’t noted any trends regarding the types of people who commit suicide. In a very general sense, the victims tend to be people who are young and impulsive or middle-aged with relationship problems, he said.

For some reason, Deception Pass Bridge has become a draw for suicidal people from across Western Washington; since the bridge joins two counties, some of the cases are handled by Skagit County officials. A number of Island County deputies have been recognized over the years for saving the lives of people who planned to jump off the bridge, but were either talked down or wrestled to the ground by deputies.

For the sheriff’s office, the increase in calls about suicidal subjects comes at a time when the department has significantly fewer deputies due to budget cuts. That can mean that a deputy may have to respond alone to a situation that may be very stressful, emotionally draining, time consuming or even dangerous.

“We always have to be concerned about the possibility of a suicide-by-cop-type situation,” Island County Sheriff Mark Brown said.

As for the Oak Harbor man who shot through his door, he pleaded guilty to reckless endangerment and was sentenced to 45 days in jail. One of the conditions of his two-year probation is that he not drink alcohol.


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