News Article Details

Coroner's Office Sees No Pattern in Lewis County Suicides, Statistics

The Chronicle - 11/10/2018

Nov. 10--The Lewis County Coroner's Office in 2017 recorded an alarming increase in suicides, following a pattern of unpredictability that has made grant-seeking efforts for a suicide prevention program improbable.

Anyone struggling with suicidal thoughts can contact local professionals with the Cascade Mental Health Care crisis team at 1-800-559-6696 or 360-330-9044 x1, or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

In 2017, there were 28 suicides in Lewis County, according to statistics provided by the coroner's office. That was twice as many as the year before.

In 2016, Coroner Warren McLeod said that he worked alongside Cascade Chief Executive Officer Richard Stride after seeing the numbers steadily climb. In 2011, there were nine; in 2012, there were 14; in 2013, there were 16; in 2014, there were 21.

McLeod said he reached out to Stride while looking for a potential way to combat increasing numbers. Stride requested stats and a breakdown in the ages, genders, geographical locations and other information about the deceased. The results, however, pointed to no clear pattern -- There was no common correlation connecting victims.

With that in mind, McLeod said he didn't opt in for grant money to create a suicide prevention program, because there was no obvious way to attack the problem. Had there been a rash of individuals within the same age range, a program could have been catered toward that age group as an audience.

"There is no one clear target audience," he said. "We've had them as young as 13 and as old as in their 90s."

The office's investigation into a suicide goes deeper than just charting ages and demographics, however. A deputy coroner with the office is trained to conduct a "psychological autopsy" -- a relatively new term replacing what was for a long time called victimology.

Typically, these investigations consist of interviews with immediate family members to identify what's likely a string of events leading up to a person taking their own life. Sometimes, the investigation might expand into interviews with friends and coworkers.

"When people are contemplating something like that, they really do want somebody to ask them if they're OK, and most people don't," Stride told The Chronicle.

And while a grant was never sought, McLeod said suicide-prevention is still a priority for himself and his staff, as is education into other forms of preventable death.

However, the forecast of all grant seeking from McLeod's office after the next five years is cloudy. The office must maintain its accreditation to seek grant dollars and as matters stand, the office may not meet the standards of accreditation when they are up for renewal in five years.

The problem, McLeod said, is extensive waiting periods for toxicology results from the Washington State Patrol lab in Seattle. The lab has become inundated with samples related to marijuana-fueled driving-under-the-influence cases. Criminal cases take precedence over death investigations, said McLeod, because certain crimes have strict time limits for prosecution. Pot-related DUIs have jumped as high as 400 percent since legalization, said McLeod.

The waiting period for the coroner's office to receive toxicology results has since stretched out to seven months. Current accreditation standards require a maximum 120-day turnaround.

The same concern is hitting coroners across the state.

"My big concern is not the lost accreditation as much as families are waiting five to seven months," McLeod said. "A mom called the other day -- 'Hey, any word on why my son died?"'

The WSP processes samples for free. There is an independent lab willing to do the work, said McLeod, but the service wouldn't be on the house like it is for the state police. On average, 25 Lewis County cases per year are pending toxicology. That would rack up a total bill of $5,500.

McLeod requested that amount for his budget during a workshop with the county commissioners, but the request was denied.

"We're working at it from multiple angles. We're not just sitting back wringing our hands going 'Oh my gosh, what do we do?' We meet with WSP regularly," he said, referencing his position on the executive board of the Washington Association of Coroners and Medical Examiners.

Some good news, said McLeod, is accrediting agencies -- International Association of Coroners and Medical Examiners and the National Association of Medical Examiners -- aren't "some agency up on the mount," saying a local coroner was recently a member of one of these boards.

And while the coroner's office has not sought a grant to benefit suicide prevention, McLeod said they give careful attention to each case, and still look for patterns, and clear-cut ways potential programs could make a difference. The numbers, meanwhile don't tell a consistent story.

After climbing from 2011 to 2014, the number of suicides dove down to 11 in 2015, then 14 in 2016, before jumping exponentially to 28 in 2017. From January to the beginning of November, there have been 14 this year.

In an effort to share a suicide-prevention sentiment locally, Stride said Cascade brought a screening of the documentary "The Ripple Effect" to the theater in Chehalis a while back. It's a story about a young man, Kevin Hines, who jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge in an attempt to commit suicide, but lived. Since then, he's become a suicide-prevention advocate.

"I saw a T-shirt that (Hines) wore that he gives away to people, and it's a pretty powerful message. It's very simple. The T-shirt just says 'Be Here Tomorrow,'" said Stride.

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(c)2018 The Chronicle (Centralia, Wash.)

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