More suicides have occurred in Walla Walla County so far in 2019 than in any year since 2014, according to officials. And coincidentally, county organizations are providing a public suicide awareness program this week.

Eleven people have killed themselves this year, according to Walla Walla County Coroner’s Office Administrative Assistant Alyssa Wells, and four of those occurred within a week, from Sept. 11-18. In 2018, there were seven suicides, she said, and six of those had happened by this same time last year. The worst year since Walla Walla County Coroner Richard Greenwood took office eight years ago was in 2014, she said, when there were 13 suicides.

The apparent uptick in suicides was unrelated to a Zero Suicide event planned for Thursday and Friday at Whitman College, organizers said.

“This is not in response to increase in the number of individuals dying by suicide, however it is to support suicide prevention month and to better equip providers and community members on matters that are related to mental health,” said Meghan DeBolt, Walla Walla County Department of Community Health director and event co-organizer. “We know some of our community members are suffering and we want to be able to support one another.” 

September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, which is meant to “shed light on this highly taboo and stigmatized topic,” according to the National Alliance on Mental Health’s website. Helping provide information is important due to the suicide uptick, it said. In fact, suicide rates increased more than 30% in half of the states between 1999 and 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website. And, 54% who died by suicide didn’t have a known mental illness. Another possibly little-known fact is suicide deaths have outnumbered homicides. In Washington, 1,136 people died from suicide in 2015, compared to 236 by homicide, according to the Washington State Department of Health’s website. In Walla Walla, there were six suicides and four homicides that year.

Rebecca Betts, a nurse/population health manager at Providence Medical Group and co-organizer of this week’s event, echoed NAMI’s statements and pointed to possible causes.

“Life expectancy in the U.S. decreased for the first time in two decades, largely because of drug overdose, alcohol-related deaths and suicide,” Betts wrote in an email, adding mental health was “a signature issue and as a healthcare organization we are committed to ‘Reduce Deaths of Despair,’ which includes the aspiration goal of Zero Suicide.”

She said she met Dr. Justin Coffey, speaker for this week’s event, last year in Seattle, and he led an “internationally acclaimed initiative to eliminate suicide” in medical settings. Walla Walla suicide prevention group REACH OUT! then invited Coffey to Walla Walla as part of area organizations’ events for the month, she said. 

“The beauty of this event is that it is a true community partnership of the Greater Columbia Accountable Communities of Health, Providence Medical Group, Walla Walla County Department of Community Health, REACH OUT! and Whitman College,” Betts wrote. “This is a public health approach to suicide prevention. Public health values a multi-agency collaboration to enrich and strengthen the solutions of the suicide epidemic.”

Emily Thornton can be reached at emilythornton@wwub.com or 509-526-8325.

Emily Thornton covers courts and emergency services, as well as other various stories. She has been in the newspaper industry off and on since roughly 1999 and lived primarily on the West Coast, but also Florida and Europe.