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McLean County sees an increase in suicides. Most are gun related.

 Sign to the McLean County Coroner's office
Eric Stock
Nineteen suicides have been reported in McLean County in 2023. That's more than the county saw (17) in all of 2022.

McLean County has seen a sharp increase in suicides this year, with more of those deaths the result of gunshot wounds.

Nineteen suicides had been reported through mid-July, compared to a total of 17 for all of 2022. That's a trend Coroner Kathy Yoder described as “startling.”

In February — a month where the county traditionally sees one or two suicides — there were seven.

“That was stark to us,” said Yoder.

Forensic pathologist Dr. Scott Denton performs autopsies at the McLean County facility that serves as a regional morgue for 46 counties in Illinois, including many in central Illinois.

Denton and his assistant use an unofficial standard known as “the misery index” to track trends in the autopsy room, Denton explained in a recent WGLT interview with Davis. The use of firearms in suicides has surpassed other means of fatal self-harm on the index, according to Denton.

“It is markedly increased, in my experience, to not just McLean County, but the surrounding counties that also utilize the regional facility here. We are way up in gun-related deaths,” said Denton.

Kathy Yoder
WGLT file
McLean County Coroner Kathy Yoder.

Yoder concurred, saying the gun-related suicides “are up exponentially” in the county.

Fifty suicides have been recorded so far this year at the morgue from the counties using the facility, compared to a total of 57 for 2022. Of the 57 suicidal deaths last year, 31 were the result of gunshot wounds.

The number of gun-related suicides in McLean and other Illinois counties mirrors what has become a recurring circumstance in U.S. death statistics: suicides account for at least half of all gun deaths, some years surpassing all other categories of firearm fatalities.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control put the number of gun-related deaths at 48,830 in 2021 in the U.S., with 54% attributed to suicide.

It its 2020 strategic plan, the Illinois Suicide Prevention Alliance listed suicide as the 11th-leading cause of death in the state. Firearms were used in 38.5% of the 1,488 suicides that year. About 1,500 suicides occur annually in Illinois.

A surprising statistic

The shocking and intensely personal nature of suicide makes it difficult for many families to share their experiences, which contributes to the small amount of attention the issue garners in the community, said Denton. In his conversations, people are surprised to learn that suicides are more common than homicides and traffic deaths.

Almost every other day, we’ll have someone in the autopsy room who committed suicide. And it’s not known. People don’t know that. So I think we need to talk about it more,” said Denton.

The information from family members and those close to suicide victims often points to stress that was either unnoticed or unaddressed, said the coroner.

"We are way up in gun-related deaths."
Forensic pathologist Scott Denton

I think there’s a lot of life stressors is what I’ve noticed, a lot of situational depression, a lot of things that perhaps, if they had talked to family or family members had noticed, or friends had noticed, or co-workers, perhaps it could have been brought to the surface that they needed additional help,” said Yoder.

Coroner records indicate suicide victims in McLean County are predominately white males in their late 40s.

Finding help in a mental health crisis is out of reach for those who do not survive attempts to end their lives. A gunshot wound leaves a person with “devastating and final injuries,” said the doctor, “as opposed to someone who may have taken pills and called 911 or sits in the garage with the engine running. They have time to think about it.”

A firearm changes the equation, he said.

“The impulsive act of picking up an easily available handgun and discharging it is a very sudden and devastating final act. And there’s no real coming back from it.”

Taking away a person’s firearms is a hot-button issue for many people, but the removal of weapons from the reach of a person in a mental health crisis is one means to reduce suicides, according to the coroner and forensic pathologist.

I think in the end, it’s a caring thing to do,” said Yoder. “It doesn’t mean it’s forever, because some crisis are situational and if they get help, and then they would want them back, I think a family member would be OK with that.”

Denton likened the elimination of firearms to suicide protocols in jails where inmates at risk for harming themselves are monitored and lethal objects removed from their access.

Illinois is one of 19 states and the District of Columbia that has laws on the books to allow police, a relative or someone close to a potentially suicidal person to petition a court to remove weapons from a household. The number of court orders sought under the laws has increased in the wake of mass shootings but requests are largely used as a tool to prevent large scale shootings and domestic violence.

Healthcare professionals are playing a larger part in efforts to prevent suicides, said Yoder. A new mental health nurse practitioner program at the Mennonite College of Nursing will increase community resources. Routine check-ups may include questions to detect potential depression before a crisis, noted Yoder.

A number of resources are available to help people experiencing a crisis:

  • PATH: Crisis Hotline: Call 211 or text TXT211
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
  • 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline: Call or text 988 to a 24-hour crisis counseling service
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Edith began her career as a reporter with The DeWitt County Observer, a weekly newspaper in Clinton. From 2007 to June 2019, Edith covered crime and legal issues for The Pantagraph, a daily newspaper in Bloomington, Illinois. She previously worked as a correspondent for The Pantagraph covering courts and local government issues in central Illinois.
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