Ulster officials concerned about rise in suicides

Daily Freeman-3 months before

"We've definitely seen an uptick," said Tara McDonald, deputy commissioner for the Ulster County Department of Health and Mental Health.

McDonald said the department saw a spike in the number of suicides in April, when three people took their lives. In May that number nearly doubled.

"The numbers are relatively small, but it's alarming," he said. "To see a spike like that is a big concern."

In addition to seeing a rise in the number of suicides, county officials are also seeing a shift in demographics among those who end their lives.

Men continued to outpace w...men in taking their own lives, with 16 men and four women committing through August. However, McDonald said there has been a shift in the age of those ending their lives.

Of the 20 suicide deaths so far this year, 10 were between the ages of 41 and 65 and predominantly male. Six of the suicides were committed by people 65 years old or older and four were between 26 and 40 years old, McDonald said.

There have been no suicides of anyone under the age of 26 and there have been no deaths in the months of August and September ruled suicides, although the August death of a 12-year-old is being investigated as a possible suicide, she said. If that death or others still pending are deemed suicides, the total number would increase, she said.

McDonald said of the 20 suicides this year, seven were by gunshot, five by hanging and four by intentional falls, two by asphyxia and one by drowning.

McDonald wouldn't directly link the uptick in suicides to the coronavirus pandemic but said it's hard not to think that it's had an impact.

"I think there's no doubt that not just the direct health aspect of COVID, but the combination of economic impact on many who have lost their jobs or been furloughed then you add concerns about housing security and food security and all those pressures kind of pile up," she said.

"The isolation that was forced by COVID, if you are really contemplating suicide, is crippling," she added.

Ryan said that the county's rise in the number of suicides is just another example of the "devastating effects" of the pandemic.

In response to the data, the department has begun to shift its attention to providing outreach and education to those in the older demographics, taking out ads in community newspapers and using other means to reach out to those who might be struggling.

"For many years, we focused a lot on teens and children," she said. "We need to shift to start to talk to the folks that are adults, the homeowners, the parents, the people in the middle part of their lives who are struggling. We need to reach out to those folks."

In his 2021 proposed budget, Ryan included additional funding for mental health services to put a licensed clinician in the 911 center and additional hours for the county's mobile mental health service.

McDonald said the additional funding for mobile mental health will allow the department to add two additional hours a day of service to the Kingston team. 

The county's mobile mental health service operates from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day. However, the day is currently divided among two teams, with a team headquartered in Ellenville, beginning its day at 10 a.m. and a team stationed in Kingston beginning at noon. With the additional funding, she said, the Kingston team will also be able to begin at 10 a.m.

The county also has the SPEAK (Suicide Prevention, Education and Awareness) app, designed to help users easily access and recognize the signs of suicide in friends and family and get them the help they need.

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