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By Collin Breaux
As mental health remains a concern during the COVID-19 health crisis, public agencies in Orange County shared suicide statistics for 2020 and previous years with San Clemente Times, after an informational inquiry.
The preliminary number of suicides was 273 in Orange County during 2020. The number of countywide suicides was 336 in 2019, 370 in 2018, and 328 in 2017. Health officials and mental health advocates stress the “preliminary” aspect of the 2020 numbers.
“During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have not seen an increase in deaths attributed to suicide by the (county) coroner,” said Mark Lawrenz, division manager for Prevention and Intervention Behavioral Health Services with the OC Health Care Agency (OCHCA). “However, it is important to note that there is a significant lag in the final reporting of this data due to investigation and reporting requirements.”
Officials with OCHCA and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department also provided individual data for Dana Point, San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano, which collectively accounted for 19 of the total recorded suicides in 2020.
In San Juan, the number of residents who committed suicide is currently nine in 2020, six in 2019, and two in 2018. In Dana Point, the number is five in 2020 and 2019, and three in 2018. In San Clemente, the number is five in 2020, seven in 2019, and 17 in 2018.
The age group with the highest number of suicides in 2020 in the tri-city area was the 55-64 age group, with seven suicides. The 0-17, 18-24, and 25-34 age groups each had one suicide in 2020 among all three cities.
Broken down by gender, the number of men who committed suicides in 2020 largely outnumbered the women by roughly 3-to-1. According to the data, 14 men took their own lives, compared to the five women who committed suicide.
That disparity was particularly felt in both San Clemente and San Juan, where a dozen of the suicides occurred among men. In Dana Point, the suicides in 2020 were generally split evenly between men and women.
Lawrenz said while OCHCA cannot predict the future trend, they are aware of the emotional impact that the coronavirus outbreak is having on the community.
“The increased stresses due to the pandemic puts the community at greater risk of mental health problems, and increased risk for suicide,” Lawrenz said. “There is a part for all of us to play in preventing suicides. Take some time to learn about the risk factors, warning signs of suicide and the words to use to start a conversation with someone that you are concerned about at suicideispreventable.org.”
San Juan Capistrano resident Jim Taylor—a notable mental health and suicide prevention advocate—said current coroner statistics do show a decrease in deaths by suicide in Orange County compared to 2019, but those numbers are a snapshot of where we are today in closed cases, and there are a substantial number of deaths still under investigation.
“Please also factor in a 58% increase over last year in the unplanned accidental death category,” Taylor said. “Those include illicit or prescription overdoes and ethanol toxicity deaths.”
Taylor attributes much of the steady decline from 2015 through 2019 in county suicides to the grassroots outreach by suicide prevention advocates, such as high school groups including The Green Ribbon Club, Taylor said.
“In addition, the county has been very proactive in their efforts to improve mental health in our communities,” Taylor said. “Reducing the stigma of suicide has gone a long way towards encouraging people to talk about it, recognize the signs and either avail themselves of resources or to assist others in getting help.”
Taylor encourages people to be proactive in reaching out to family members and friends who are at risk for self-harm and suicide and getting them to someone who can help, which may be a therapist, interventionist, the Prevention Lifeline, or 911, depending on the level of urgency.
“If you are having thoughts of suicide, please know that your life matters,” Taylor said.
Additional resources to reach out for help include the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800.273.8255 (TALK); the Crisis Chat at didihirsch.org/chat; the OC WarmLine phone number at 877.910.9276 (WARM); and OC WarmLine Live Chat at namioc.org.
The deaf and hard of hearing can access the Crisis Text by texting HEARME to 839863. OC WarmLine can also be accessed by text at 714.991.6412.
Collin Breaux covers San Juan Capistrano and other South Orange County news as the City Editor for The Capistrano Dispatch. Before moving to California, he covered Hurricane Michael, politics and education in Panama City, Florida. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.