Task force focuses on suicides, prevention

Mark Frederick, a behavioral health supervisor at UPMC Altoona, said last week that even one suicide in Blair County is too many.

That is why for the past 10 years he has been involved with many others, including Blair County Coroner Patricia Ross, in a Suicide Prevention Task Force that meets monthly to discuss the problem locally and decide on ways to address it.

A week ago, Ross reported that her office had a very busy year in 2013.

It included rulings on 27 drug overdoses, 37 fatal traffic accidents, three homicides and 24 suicides.

Nineteen of the suicides were residents of Blair County.

Ross’s office investigates deaths when they occur in Blair County, but some of the deaths involved residents from other counties who are brought to the UPMC Altoona Trauma Center.

When such a death occurs at the hospital, it is up to Ross to rule on the cause, which is why her statistics reflect a larger number of deaths by suicide than the number from Blair.

Years ago, Ross, local agency representatives, school officials and others decided to address the suicide problem that at the time included many young people.

“We have such a great team in our county,” Ross said

last week.

She said the group keeps track of the suicides that have occurred and discusses ways to address what may be a problem.

“We are reaching out,” she said, trying to understand why people commit suicide and what help can be provided.

Frederick, who is a licensed professional counselor and who has worked at the hospital for 28 years, said that 10 agencies are involved in the group.

It has taken a three-pronged approach to the subject. The group attempts to provide education to the people in the community, for instance how to recognize depression. Group members talk to people in the business community, clergy, people at the courthouse and even people in nursing homes.

Another step is to create awareness, taking away the “stigma” of suicide and emphasizing that people should “not let things go” when others make comments that would indicate a problem.

The local group has teamed up with a national group from Philadelphia to sponsor an annual walk that includes many surviving family members and friends.

Another effort is designed to offer support to survivors. There is a survivor representative on the task force, Frederick said.

Frederick said at one point the task force conducted suicide autopsies, trying to gather all the information it could about an individual victim and his or her circumstances and using that information to suggest ways to do things better.

He said the suicide rates in this area are “around the national average.”

The youngest Blair resident to commit suicide in 2013 was 21.

Blair has had a low adolescent suicide rate, and Frederick credited student assistance programs in the schools with providing help to young people in need.

What Ross noticed in 2013 was the concentration of suicides among young middle-aged men and women, people in their 30s, 40s and 50s.

Frederick isn’t sure of the reasons but suggested job problems in an unstable economy might be taking a toll as well as the break-up of families caused by divorce or separation.

The suicide rate has risen in this age group, not only in Blair, but nationally, he said.

The 24 suicides recorded in Blair County in 2013 included 13 from gunshots, nine from hanging, and one each from antifreeze ingestion and stabbing.

The aim of his task force he said, is to eliminate suicide. That may be idealistic, but he said the people in the group are very dedicated in their pursuit of that goal.

Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.