It was on a warm summer night on my way home from a soccer match when the text came through. It was from my neighbor, Janice, and it was blunt and to the point. "There is a coroner's van parked by your house. 'John' hung himself in his garage."
John was our neighbor across the street. The quiet man no older than 45 with the tiny little brown and white shaggy dog. Just the night before, John was walking the little dog in front of my house and we had a brief neighborhood chat. As I turned my car around the corner to my street and pulled into my driveway, I saw the coroner's van. A few people were huddled outside in the dark outside John's house. All I could think of is: Not again. Not another neighbor. My next door neighbor took her life several years ago by lying down in her garage and turning her car on. She never woke up. Now John.
The night of John's suicide was surreal. The other neighbor and I stood around almost silent, not knowing what to say. Just being incredibly sad and asking why? Another neighbor, Blake, did reach out and talked to John multiple times over the past month. Blake found his body after John's little dog wouldn't stop barking. Blake was grateful he saw the body hanging from behind. We hugged each other in the middle of the street and walked over to the coroner parked in his van filling out his report, holding a flashlight in the dark to see. It was almost midnight. What he said next stunned me. Before accepting the job as a coroner, he researched Sacramento's suicide rates and found it was No. 4 in the nation.
How can this be? How? Why? I reached out to the Sacramento County Coroner. Coroner Kimberly Gin said in 2017, 208 people died of suicide in Sacramento County compared to 91 who died of homicide. Suicides more than double the amount of homicides where we live. To me, that's astounding.
Sacramento had the 4th highest suicide rate in the nation in 2011, according to Business Insider which tracks these trends. It has landed on other top 15 cities list. We've known about the rising suicide rate since at least 2009 when county officials, realizing "Sacramento County has a higher suicide rate than the statewide average" set up its Suicide Prevention Project.
Researching the epidemic of suicide for more than a decade, I've always wanted to do a multi-part news series about the issue but the subject was too dark and tough to broadcast on the air. Would people listen to such a tragic topic? What held me back and influenced me the most is that multiple studies show there is indeed a copycat effect with suicides. A contagion. The more the media reports them or even glamorizes them, it could trigger someone thinking about taking their own life. One study reported suicides shot up ten percent in the four months after Robin Williams killed himself. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline reported a staggering 25 percent increase in calls following the very public suicides of designer Kate Spade and chef/storyteller Anthony Bourdain.
But suicide has been a national epidemic for nearly 20 years, rising at an astonishing 30% rate since 1999, according to a report released this month by the Centers for Disease Control. Suicides nearly double the homicide rate in the U.S. and California.
Mindi Russell, head of the Sacramento Law Enforcement Chaplaincy, told me her chaplains get called out to more suicides than homicides or other deaths. They range from members of law enforcement to teenagers and mothers and fathers taking their lives. Basically, all across the spectrum.
So what do we do? Start by getting informed. Pay attention to friends and family. I took a suicide prevention class last fall after my neighbor's death. I learned some interesting facts:
* There may be no warning signs. The person can appear normal and happy in the weeks and days before.
* Many plan their suicides ahead of time. Some want to get their lives "in order" before killing themselves. One teen waited until she graduated high school to kill herself. In my neighbor's case, he set up his classroom for the next school year then killed himself two days later.
* Most don't really want to die. They just want to end the intense pain they are feeling at that moment.
Although neighbor Blake stepped in to help John, his suicide note said he wasn't strong enough to fight the darkness anymore. That's why many may not reach out to a suicide hotline. They have already shut down and planning their exit. John had Googled methods to commit suicide on his laptop.
We are now having a national discussion about mental health and depression.
If there is one ray of hope in these sad statistics and lives gone too soon, it's this. Suicide is preventable. It's the only cause of death that is. You can't prevent cancer, car accidents, natural disasters or homicides. But you can prevent suicide.
Kevin Briggs knows full well. He was a California Highway Patrol officer for 18 years whose law enforcement duty was to patrol the Golden Gate Bridge. The iconic bridge with its image known around the world also has an infamous reputation for being one of the top suicide destinations on the planet. Nearly 1,700 people have plunged to their deaths there. Briggs witnessed dozens of attempts firsthand. During his career, he talked 200 people out of committing suicide on the bridge. Most were already up on the guardrails looking down at the dark abyss 22 stories below.
Briggs slowly and carefully approached them with well-calculated but simple words: "Hi. How are you? What are your plans for tomorrow?" He made them think about tomorrow.
Along with awareness, that's one approach we need to start taking at this critical time -- making those suffering believe there is a better tomorrow. One urgent step at a time.
The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255