Milwaukee County is on pace to finish the year with more suicides than in 2019, prompting health leaders to step up prevention efforts.
County Executive David Crowley said the county likely will exceed last year’s numbers, potentially reaching 126.
There have been 94 confirmed suicides since Jan. 1 in Milwaukee, and approximately eight cases pending that may be ruled as suicides.
According to the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner’s Office, 115 people died by suicide in Milwaukee County in 2019. In the county’s record year of 2017, there were 156 suicides.
In addition, Crowley said 80% of emergency medical service calls for overdoses and mental health needs have come from Black residents in 2020.
Mental health professionals and public health officials say they are working to combat the situation.
Vaynesia Kendrick, a community outreach specialist with the city’s Office of Violence Prevention, said the surge in suicides can be linked to COVID-19.
People, she said, feel socially isolated because of the pandemic on top of mounting economic strain on household finances.
In addition, Kendrick said an increased focus on racial and social injustice may also be affecting people’s mental state.
Tony Thrasher, medical director of crisis services for the Milwaukee County Behavioral Health Division, said many people are experiencing “real and perceived difficulty” trying to reach a psychiatrist.
For example, he said, many people may not want to leave the house or think that it would be safe to see their psychiatrist. Others are simply not aware of the resources available to them.
“To a person with mental illness, it doesn’t matter if” any difficulty “is real or perceived,” Thrasher said. “It’s a barrier regardless.”
Crowley said an important step is “investing upstream,” or putting funding and efforts into addressing the problems that lead to suicide.
This means making mental health services more accessible and ensuring residents seek them out.
Leah Rolando, suicide prevention program coordinator for Mental Health America of Wisconsin, said investing upstream can also mean addressing larger societal issues. She said there has been success with providing people with basic things they need, such as food, water, shelter and financial assistance to address mental health problems.
Suicide among Wisconsinites increased 40% from 2000 to 2017, according to a recently released report detailing data trends across the state.
Teens and young adults are more likely to have thoughts of suicide than any other age group.
One in six public high school students in Wisconsin reported suicidal thoughts in 2017, and this group has high incidence of hospitalization for self-harm.
This has caused a reckoning for mental health advocates, who now need to reach new demographic groups, Rolando said.
“Suicide prevention is not one size fits all,” Rolando said, who stressed the importance of tailoring the approach to different cultures and backgrounds.
Rolando said many contemporary suicide prevention strategies are tailored toward white cisgender women, making the strategies difficult to apply for people who need help outside of that demographic.
Rolando said there are new efforts being made to connect to Black youth, including faith-based suicide prevention and a change in messaging.
In Milwaukee, this includes the MIRACLE Network, a group led by the Progressive Baptist Church that focuses on relating mental health and wellness to the faith community.
That messaging means more when it’s coming from within the areas and communities that mental health providers serve, Thrasher said. That is why there is an effort by the Behavioral Health Division to decentralize its services, which were previously based heavily in Wauwatosa, and move them into areas in the city where they are needed most.
“Many people think they’re the only one that feels that way,” Thrasher said, “or that many people feel that way, and there’s no way out.”
Crowley said everyone can help by doing simple things such as checking in on our neighbors and friends and asking them how they are feeling or if they need assistance. He also said we need to have “tough conversations with our loved ones” about suicide.
“We need to rely on one another and lean on one another,” Crowley said.
Resources that can help
Vaynesia Kendrick, a community outreach specialist with the city’s Office of Violence Prevention, said one of the first steps to preventing suicide is having conversations about it in the home.
She suggested anyone interested in starting a conversation take Question, Persuade and Refer training, which is offered by Mental Health America.
She said it is important to remember that you do not have to be suicidal to access these resources. You can utilize them to get details on how to manage situations in the future, including helping other people struggling with suicidal thoughts.
Suicide Prevention Lifeline: (800) 273-8255
Milwaukee County Crisis Line, available 24/7: (414) 257-7222
The Crisis Text Line: Users should text HOME to 741741 to be connected with someone who can help guide them through any crises they may be experiencing.
The My3 app: Available on the Apple Store and Google Play Store, the app provides resources and allows users to create a safety plan when they are struggling with suicidal thoughts. It allows you to select and contact three of the most important or trusted people in your life if you are in crisis.
The Virtual Hope Box: The app is meant to create positive thinking and help people to cope and relax. It is available on the Apple Store and Google Play Store.