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Report: Suicide rates rise in Sullivan County, Northeast Tennessee

Holly Viers • Mar 25, 2018 at 1:30 PM

KINGSPORT — A recent report from the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network shows that suicide rates are still on the rise in the state, including in Sullivan County and the surrounding region.

The TSPN report, which is based on 2016 data, states that the rate of suicide deaths in Northeast Tennessee — comprised of Johnson, Sullivan, Carter, Washington, Unicoi, Hawkins, Greene and Hancock counties — is higher than any other region in the state.

In Sullivan County, both the number and rate of suicide deaths were the highest since at least 2007, the last year for which data was reported.

By the numbers

The TSPN report includes the latest statistics available from the Tennessee Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It features a detailed report on suicide trends in the entire state as well as individual subgroups.

• State level: In 2016, there were 1,110 recorded suicide deaths, at a rate of 16.2 per 100,000 people. This is a slight increase from 2015, which had 1,065 registered suicide deaths at a rate of 16.1, and it represents the highest number and rate recorded in 35 years.

• Regional level: The rate of suicide deaths in Northeast Tennessee in 2016 was 55.7 per 100,000 people. This is well above the next highest rate of 49, which was recorded in South Central Tennessee.

• County level: Though the number of suicide deaths in Hawkins and Washington counties declined in 2016, the number in Sullivan County increased from 28 in 2015 to 33 in 2016. This is the highest number recorded in Sullivan since at least 2007, when there were 22 reported suicides.

Is this cause for concern?

Diane Bowen and Kathy Benedetto, who cochair Frontier Health’s suicide prevention initiative, said they keep a close eye on suicide trends in this region and the state.

Though they believe the increase could be attributed to a number of different factors, both women agree that rising suicide rates are always a concern.

“Our goal is zero (suicides),” Bowen said. “Any loss, I think, is to be concerned about.”

What is causing rates to rise?

Bowen and Benedetto said efforts are underway across the state to better identify those who have committed suicide, which could have contributed to the regional increase in numbers.

“The numbers, they climbed a bit, but percentage-wise, just a difference in … a manner of reporting could’ve made the difference in Northeast,” Benedetto said, “because there have been years when certainly Northeast was not the highest.”

Benedetto added that the substance abuse problem in this region, including the opioid crisis, and access to means could play a role.

“We know that substance abuse lowers inhibitions and puts one at greater risk. … And we think about, too, access to means: pills or gunshot wounds,” Benedetto said. “Might that be any different in Northeast than other parts of the state? I don’t know why it would be, but those are the things that I think about when I see a higher rate in one region.”

Bowen and Benedetto weren’t sure why the rate in Sullivan County continued to rise, though they said population changes could be a contributing factor.

What can be done?

Both women said they don’t necessarily believe the rising suicide rates are due to a lack of mental health services in this region.

“When I think about resources that we have in this region versus other parts of the state … I think we’ve been pretty fortunate in securing some programs in Northeast,” Benedetto said. “For example, we have services in some of our jails. We have alcohol and drug residential programs, school-based programs.”

At the same time, Benedetto and Bowen agree that cost, lack of transportation and the stigma surrounding mental health treatment are significant barriers that often prevent people in this area from seeking help.

“I think the state as a whole has a pretty robust prevention network service,” Benedetto said. “So I think that’s a good thing, but getting patients into care and overcoming … those kinds of stigma issues, that’s something that we’ve been trying to combat.”

If you are having suicidal thoughts and need assistance, call the 24-hour Frontier Health crisis hotline at (877) 928-9062.

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