Justin Ames mug

JEFFERSONVILLE — A Tuesday morning panel discussion tackled the complex intersection of addiction, suicide and mental health, including how first responders are affected by some of the things they see during the job.

The panel, "Hope Lies in Recovery," was the second in a week full of events hosted by Clark County CARES as part of its fifth Drug Facts Week. Panelists included former Clark County Health Officer Dr. Kevin Burke, current Clark County Health Officer Dr. Eric Yazel, Jeff Romer with Personal Counseling Services, Jeffersonville Fire Department Sgt. Justin Ames and Lauren Pearson, from LifeSpring Health Systems.

Doug Drake, president and CEO of Personal Counseling Services, moderated the panel.

According to the Clark County Health Department, although opioid overdose deaths have gone down over the past several years — now at 47 deaths in 2019 from 90 in 2016 — suicide rates have stayed fairly consistent.

In 2015, there were 18 deaths attributed to suicide in Clark County; in 2016, there were 19; in 2017, there were  17 and in 2018, 19 deaths by suicide reported. State numbers are higher, with suicide being the 10th leading cause of death in 2016 and 2017.

Yazel said in the county, these are mainly due to fatal, self-inflicted gunshot wounds, but he and several others on the panel agreed that without other evidence, such as a witness, it's difficult to determine whether some of those overdose numbers could be intentional as well.

"There's some that are very clearly intentional," Yazel said, referring to overdose deaths. "There's some you can't really determine if they're intentional or not but you know substance use disorder contributed to it."

That's one of the reasons it's hard to draw a distinct line or correlation between suicide and addiction, he said. For instance someone could have past trauma or untreated mental health issues that led to addiction disorders, which could in turn lead to more depression.

"It's hard because almost every substance abuse disorder is going to have some amount of depression," he said.

Burke agreed with his colleague.

"This population is prone to depression and suicidal thoughts," Burke said. "And my opinion is the increasing trend of suicide to escape the pain and suffering; we need to get a handle on that."

The comorbidity between addiction and suicide is laid out in a recent study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Pearson added, citing that "22 percent of those who had a successful suicide, alcohol was present at the time of death and 20 percent, opioids," she said. Marijuana was present in 4 percent of suicides and 13 percent other substances.

SOME POPULATIONS AT HIGHER RISK

But the risk may be higher for some populations. For instance in Indiana, suicide is the second leading cause of death among LQBTQ youth ages 13 to 34, Stoner said.

He said this could be helped with a community and leaders who are accepting and educated in recognizing and addressing signs of bullying and depression.

"I think it's very important for us as a community to make sure we're arming our young people with the tools that are required to tackle things like mental health and suicidal thoughts," he said. "Making sure that we as a community are aware and know the signs of mental health [issues] and signs of suicide or self-harm."

MENTAL TOLL ON FIRST RESPONDERS

Sgt. Ames, with the Jeffersonville Fire Department, added that the first responders who attend to the fires, overdoses, suicides and other deaths are also humans, who sometimes suffer real mental consequences to what they've seen.

To compound that, he said there's a big stigma with first responders who may not seek out help for post traumatic stress disorders.

"A lot of first responders hide what they have going on because they have to put on a front for those they are serving," Ames said, adding that it often means the community sees the best sides of the responders and their families see the worst.

"Imagine trying to turn everything off and stay positive when you're really in a dark place," he said.

But breaking the stigma is something the department has been on the forefront of trying to address for the past several years.

"JFD has been trying to be leaders in that [to] end the stigma," he said. "The fight is just now beginning."

Aprile Rickert is the crime and courts reporter at the News and Tribune. Contact her via email at aprile.rickert@newsandtribune.com or by phone at 812-206-2115. Follow her on Twitter: @Aperoll27.

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