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As economy slumps, suicide threats rise

TAMPA — Around the nation, across Florida and in much of the Tampa Bay area, the grim numbers are the same: More and more people are calling crisis lines threatening to kill themselves.

Experts and the people handling the calls say economic woes are responsible for much of the increase.

Suicide calls to the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, the largest local lifeline, have more than doubled, from 361 calls in 2007 to 819 last year. Calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline reached a record in 2008 — 568,437 calls, compared with 412,768 in 2007.

"The economy is destructive on a number of levels," said Nina Cillo, a supervisor at the Crisis Center, which fields calls from Hillsborough County. "That sense of outrage, that sense of impotence, really triggers that kind of behavior."

The good news: The number of actual deaths by suicide across the Tampa Bay area has not spiked, just attempts and threats.

Cillo, who has worked in social services for 20 years, suspects many who call the center just want someone to understand their desperation.

Mental health experts say the loss of a job or a home can send someone who already is unstable to the brink. And in some cases, they say, people are going without psychiatric drugs because they can no longer afford them.

Historically, there's no association between suicides and recessions, according to the American Association of Suicidology. But there is a known relationship between increased suicides and job loss. And any major life distress that increases anxiety and despair can spur those already prone to suicidal thoughts, said Alan Berman, executive director of the association, which tracks suicides and studies how to prevent them.

But the fact that more people are reaching out for help is a positive sign, Berman said.

Suicide calls to the St. Petersburg Police Department nearly doubled from 22 to 42 between 2007 and 2008, said police spokesman George Kajtsa. Calls to the Hernando County Sheriff's Office grew from 238 to 287 in the same time period.

The Pasco County Sheriff's Office didn't see a jump, and the United Way of Pasco County, which also receives suicide calls and refers them to local law enforcement agencies, has seen only a modest increase. But dispatchers have reported increases in calls about depression, said Susan Arnett, president of the United Way of Pasco County.

"They can't pay their mortgages, they've lost their jobs," Arnett said of the callers. "The economic status of their lives is a big deal. That's the prevailing issue."

Getting in line

Such complicated topics are making calls last longer at 211 Tampa Bay Cares, a crisis hotline that covers Pinellas and Hernando counties.

With longer calls come longer waits.

Sometimes, callers on hold will hang up, said 211's executive director, Micki Thompson. "Some people may not be willing to wait as long as others," she said.

Also adding to the wait times are budget cuts. In 2007, Thompson's agency had 12 full-time positions to answer calls. Last year, it only had nine such positions.

Thompson believes it's one of the reasons calls were down last year at 211 Tampa Bay Cares.

In 2007, it received 415 calls about suicide out of 65,686. In 2008, 296 callers out of 57,758 discussed suicide.

Agencies that are receiving more calls also cite a budgetary reason for the increase in suicide threats: less money to help people in dire need.

The Crisis Center of Tampa Bay's fund to help people with rent, food or utility payments has been stretched thin by a high volume of requests, said Shannon Hawke, its program coordinator for Family Support Services.

Federal dollars and donations help fund the center's Emergency Food and Shelter Program. More federal money is expected in February, Hawke said, but for now, "there's a lull."

Stephen Roggenbaum, a University of South Florida researcher and suicide expert, also pointed to state budget cuts to mental health services and treatment centers as factors in the upswing in calls.

"Loss is a risk factor, clearly," Roggenbaum said. "But it's not a sign of weakness to get help."

The Sunshine Skyway Bridge with its 200-foot drop is one Tampa Bay spot that has long attracted those trying to end their lives.

In 2008 more suicides were attempted than in any year since 2000, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.

FHP says 29 people threatened to jump off the bridge last year, up from 18 in 2007. Nine of the 29 attempts were fatal. The rest either changed their minds or survived.

Sgt. Steve Gaskins, spokesman for FHP's Troop C, often patrols the bridge for jumpers. In letters he has read and people he has coaxed from the edge, Gaskins said money and relationship problems are generally the culprits — the past year especially.

He recalled a man in October who drove up, parked and tried to jump. The man had recently lost his job, and his house to foreclosure.

"Up to that point, he did everything he was supposed to do, and all of a sudden it went to hell in a handbasket," Gaskins said.

Troopers arrived in time to talk the man from the edge. Like others who hesitate at the top, he seemed to be looking for an excuse not to jump, Gaskins said.

The trooper believes the rise in attempts is the result of temporary tough times, so Gaskins tells would-be jumpers: "Times will improve, the economics will improve. There's always the possibility of change for the better, whereas if you take your life now, nothing will change."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Kim Wilmath can be reached at kwilmath@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3386.

fast facts

Warning signs

• Suicide warning signs include dramatic mood swings, withdrawing from family or friends, uncontrolled anger, hopelessness, insomnia, recklessness and mentioning thoughts of death.

• If you suspect someone is thinking of suicide, ask directly if the person has thought of hurting himself or has made a plan to do so. If the answer is yes, immediately call for help and do not leave that person alone.

• Call 911 or 211 to reach the nearest crisis center or toll-free, 1-800-273-8255, to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

As economy slumps, suicide threats rise 01/11/09 [Last modified: Monday, January 12, 2009 8:46am]
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