JOLIET – Seventy-nine people ended their own lives last year in Will County.
People of every age range, from teenagers to 90-somethings, decided there was no reason to live.
Seventy-nine: likely the highest total during a calendar year in the county’s history, according to data from the Will County Coroner’s Office dating back to 1975.
Seventy-nine: two more lives lost than the 77 accidental heroin- or opioid-related overdose deaths the county saw last year, also a record.
Seventy-nine: 59 more than the 20 people who were murdered in the county.
The number of suicides both locally and nationwide has led to some recognition of a need for more mental health services.
Silver Cross Hospital announced in January its intent to build Silver Oaks Hospital – a behavioral health facility that will treat the most severe mental illness symptoms – on its New Lenox campus. The village of New Lenox opens its doors at Village Hall each month to “Healing Hearts – Survivors of Suicide Support Group” as part of its Safe Communities initiative, which also include mental health first aid classes.
Both initiatives are meant to address mental health and prevent suicide.
Those who lose loved ones to suicide experience gut-wrenching disbelief, grief and sadness. They encounter a seemingly never-ending emotional battle of their own. Some relationships grow closer, while others are severed and pre-existing problems with loved ones are multiplied, members of Healing Hearts and mental health professionals have said.
“No one really understands, unless they’ve lost someone to suicide or a drug overdose,” said Kathy Ostrowski of Frankfort, who lost her son to suicide in 2015. “It’s something you never get over.”
Ostrowski said she didn’t see a reason to get out of bed after losing her son. But after two months, she decided it wasn’t helping her two youngest daughters to see their mom “incapacitated.”
That December, the Ostrowskis began attending Healing Hearts. In these private, confidential support groups, those who lost loved ones to suicide share their deepest, most painful thoughts and emotions.
“My family personally understands the devastating grief that suicide brings – my son lost his battle with mental illness six years ago in spring of 2011,” Patricia Steinkamp, founder of Healing Hearts, stated in a letter to The Herald-News. “No one can imagine the unbearable mental pain he must have been in to end his own life so tragically and violently.”
Each month, Healing Hearts group members discuss the good and bad – the struggles they’re having with family members and friends, and the progress they have made in different aspects of life.
Because suicide impacts so many families at different times, support group members are in different stages of recovery and offer new members advice and support for situations similar to the ones they have been through. The group functions as a support system to let the others know they’re not alone.
Approximately one out of five adults in the U.S. experiences mental illness in a given year, yet only 41 percent of adults in the U.S. with a mental health condition received mental health services in the past year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Perhaps just as alarming as the county’s 2016 total is the increase from 2015, when there were 58 suicides – a 47 percent jump from one year to the next. Suicide rates continue to rise gradually across the nation.
No clear reason for suicide rise
Will County Coroner Patrick O’Neil said his office hasn’t noticed any new trends that might have led to the increase, noting it’s hard to predict the amount of suicides, similar to drug overdoses or traffic crashes.
“I’m not aware how to gauge what this number actually means,” he said, adding that people might have contemplated suicide late in 2015 and went through with it in early 2016, and that could account for some of the jump.
O’Neil said the county typically has one suicide per 10,000 people, which is in line with the state average of about 10 per 100,000 residents. The 2016 county total amounts to about 11.4 per 100,000 residents.
The ways people communicate their suicide intentions and reasoning has changed, O’Neil said. Investigators now find suicide notes electronically, via text message, Facebook and Snapchat. People have even recorded the act itself for others to see.
“More and more, authorities are confiscating electronics trying to find out what triggered the suicide,” O’Neil said. “But we’re still looking for the same things – some people have financial problems, relationship problems, terminal illnesses, a rapid loss of weight because of a burden or problem they had, etc.”
Mental health stigma
Mental health professionals say key things need to happen in order to save as many people as possible from missing out on the rest of their lives, and to address their mental health issues before they reach that point.
They say there needs to be a reduction in stigma surrounding mental health.
“The fear of possible rejection and alienation from the community is what compels individuals to silently suffer with their thoughts and feelings,” Will County Health Department Behavioral Health Program Manager Dr. Scott Dubois said. “It is when individuals’ attempts to cope with their thoughts and feelings are no longer adequate that they begin to feel hopeless and helpless as they search for a way to relieve themselves of their emotional pain and some begin to contemplate suicide.”
Techniques such as Question, Persuade, and Refer are proven to save people from committing suicide. It’s considered the cardiopulmonary resuscitation – or CPR – of mental health. People trained in QPR learn how to recognize the warning signs of a suicide crisis and how to question, persuade and refer the person experiencing it toward professional help.
“Many people have taken CPR and basic first aid courses and as a result, many lives are saved because people took action,” Dubois said. “And yet, how many individuals in the community are card-carrying Mental Health First Aiders? How many individuals are trained to identify early signs of emotional distress, which also can happen to any one of us in the community?”
Steinkamp said she was invited three years ago to take her first QPR class. From there, she was encouraged by New Lenox Mayor Tim Baldermann to start the support group. During each meeting, the group is joined by a guest speaker, such as an author or mental health expert.
Ostrowski encourages anyone who experienced the loss of a loved one to suicide to seek support systems and healthy activities. She sought, and still goes, to therapy sessions. The family did grief counseling and joined awareness walks in Chicago.
“Hibernating and withdrawing is not good,” Ostrowski said. “As much as you want to do that – it’s not gonna help.”
Those struggling with mental illness and contemplating suicide need to be aware of the resources and services available to them when they’re experiencing mental illnesses, said Michele Batara, executive director of Crisis Line of Will and Grundy Counties.
“If you educate the community on it and more people are aware of it, that will create a situation where people can go out for support and are more likely to find help and treatment,” Batara said. “In times of crisis, people need to feel validated and supported.”
Shortage in service providers
According to a study cited by Dubois, Will County has one mental health provider per 1,063 people, while U.S. communities with the most mental health services average one provider per 370 people. The ratio is also far below the state average of 560 people per provider.
Tinley Park Mental Health Center closed in 2012 and has only grown the void in local service. In Will and Grundy counties, there are currently only 10.15 mental health beds for inpatient stays per 100,000 people. Experts recommend 40 to 50 such beds per 100,000.
That’s why the Silver Oaks proposal earned wide praise from health professionals and local officials. The state of Illinois still has to approve the plan, which would bring a 100-bed mental health hospital to the county. Silver Cross currently has 20 beds that would be moved to Silver Oaks.
“It’s been significantly needed for the longest time,” Dubois said of Silver Oaks. “We send almost all children who need hospitalization out of the county. It would be a tremendous advantage for the health department and the clients we serve. Being able to access service within the county they reside in, having families able to participate and be a part of the discharge back into the community – I think there will be a lot more family engagement and better services for our residents.”
Lack of state funding
Even with the Silver Oaks inpatient facility, the county would still be below recommended inpatient service levels – not to mention the shortage in outpatient services.
The Will County 2016 Behavioral Health Capacity Assessment found that the instability of state funding was the top barrier cited by providers to expanding services, followed by lack of capital funding for facility expansion.
Additionally, 62 percent of providers reported that state budget problems have impacted their ability to provide services. Impacts included cuts to services, reduced organizational capacity, staffing difficulty and financial problems, according to the assessment.
“Unfortunately, social services and mental health are the first things on the chopping block in budget talks,” Batara said. “We need to get the politicians and people who make budgets and regulations more aware of the impact mental health and suicide has on a community. There is so much more needed than the resources that are available.”
Meanwhile, clients responded in the same assessment that there are three main barriers to receiving behavioral health services. They are: cost of needed services (34 percent), wait time for services (32 percent) and distance to services (30 percent).