IN JUST the past month, Multnomah County has seen more than five public suicide attempts. That's an unusually high number, and each drew uncomfortable attention to an often-avoided topic.
But while public suicides catch more notice, officials across the county say the problem—an increase in suicide rates overall—goes far beyond what we can easily see.
"It's the white elephant in the middle of the living room that no one wants to talk about," said Portland Fire and Rescue's Paul Corah at an October 13 press conference. "But it's crucial we do."
The Portland Police Bureau has responded to 214 suicides and attempts already this year—an uptick from 198 for all of last year. Additionally, officers have received 916 suicide-related calls, 65 more than in all of 2010. While it's impossible to pinpoint a single cause, says Leslie Storm of Oregon Partnership, a nonprofit suicide and substance abuse prevention group, it's easy to key in on an at least one overarching issue: the unstable economy.
"We know the rise is due to a combination of stresses, but the underlying stress is the economy," she says. "And it doesn't seem like it's going to get better soon."
Storm, who operates Oregon Partnership's 24-hour suicide hotline, says she's seen the suicide rate slowly rise over the five years she's worked there. "A lot of people are unemployed and don't have the right insurance for serious illnesses," Storm says. "Mental health budget cuts don't help."
In tandem with the increase, Storm has watched fellow nonprofit mental health facilities close because of major state and county budget cuts. Last month, Multnomah County commissioners voted to cut $5.56 million from county mental health services. While the state returned $4.7 million, the cut still left a mark. The county's Mental Health and Addiction Services Division (MHASD) crisis line remains intact, but the cuts have left those without insurance on thin ice.
"The county is responsible for those that are the most ill and most vulnerable," says David Hidalgo, interim MHASD director. "And a large group of those individuals are not covered."
With even more cuts expected in the coming year, Hidalgo says it's time to work together with other community resources, such as police officers, city workers, and social services. Currently, MHASD is working with Portland police to create a smoother system for transferring suicide-related 911 calls to the county's crisis line.
Oregon Partnership's Storm says she sees community collaboration and awareness as a key piece to quelling the rising numbers.
"We need to lose the stigma around suicide and reach out. People need to know that there are resources for them, even if it's just to talk," Storm says. "If people can hold on, it will change."