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San Diego County's suicide rate falls for third-straight year
San Diego Union-Tribune - 9/8/2022
Suicide rates continued to fall in 2021, the third-straight year that San Diego County has seen such a decrease, according to a report released by the San Diego County Suicide Prevention Council Thursday.
Preliminary counts from the county medical examiner list 364 suicides last year, the first time the number has fallen below one per day since 2012. The 2020 total was 419, with 429 suicides in 2019 and 465 in 2018.
The decrease is particularly counterintuitive given that it includes the coronavirus pandemic years of 2020 and 2021, a time when many were isolated in their homes, lost jobs due to widespread shutdowns or lost loved ones to COVID-19.
And San Diego County skews lower than the national rate when it comes to fatal self-harm in 2021 with a rate of 10.3 per 100,000 residents compared to a rate of 13.5 per 100,000 nationwide, according to provisional estimates from the National Center for Health Statistics.
During a news conference held by the council, Nathan Fletcher, chair of the county Board of Supervisors, urged anyone who feels they are facing a crisis to reach out.
"If you are having some mental health struggles, there should be no issue at all in reaching out to seek help," Fletcher said.
Anyone experiencing a mental health crisis can call 988 or the San Diego Access and Crisis Line at (888) 724-7240 for immediate assistance.
The report also highlights specific efforts that may have contributed to the gradual decline in suicide rates in recent years.
Health care providers have recently faced increased demand from regulators to screen patients for depression and other factors that, if untreated, can significantly increase the odds of suicide.
Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group now uses a standardized method to routinely ask patients arriving for all kinds of health care about factors that could indicate that they are at an increased risk of suicide.
Ashton Harris, lead social work manager at Rees-Stealy, said that 45 percent of patients have a doctor visit within the month before they commit suicide, but only about 20 percent will have seen a mental health professional in that same time frame. Screening programs, she said, are designed to improve that ratio by formalizing the referral process, training not only doctors and case workers on signs that a referral may be necessary but also instructing those who interact with patients in other areas such as billing.
"Please reach out, you deserve support, and we are here for you," Harris said.
Rady Children's Hospital implemented its own depression screening program for patients age 12 and older in 2014.
Dr. Benjamin Maxwell, Rady's interim director of child and adolescent psychiatry, said the program has produced very tangible results.
"We have seen a number of kids pop up with suicide risks that came through our doors for something completely different," Maxwell said. "A broken bone, for example, is still going to get a suicide screening and, in some of those situations, we've identified kids who are at high risk and have been able to intervene."
The coalition report indicates that Rady now screens about 1,500 kids per week with between 25 to 30 receiving a follow-up.
"I would hope that this is an indication that we're starting to show some progress where we are preventing suicides in our community," Maxwell said.
This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.
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