Suicide in Humboldt: Record High Last Year

Arcata Suicide

Officers hike into the Arcata Forest where a young woman committed suicide in 2015. [Photo by Oliver Cory]

 The numbers are grim. Humboldt County has a huge number of suicides for its population. Each death takes a toll—family, friends, emergency responders—are all affected and, in turn, affect others. The Yurok Tribe even declared a state of emergency after seven of its members killed themselves last year.

Humboldt County Coroner Ernie Stewart pointed out that 2015 was a particularly bad time for suicides. “Last year we set a record high,” he said. “Forty-three, the highest ever.”

These suicides left behind family and friends who are struggling to understand. In some cases, emergency responders had to call for backup from the Sheriff’s Office to deal with a grieving family members. Law enforcement, fire crews, emergency medical personnel, dispatchers and the coroner’s staff all had to deal with the trauma of what they saw and heard.

It’s a tradition among news organizations and law enforcement to keep quiet about suicides so as not to add pain to a family that is already struggling with so much. Unless the suicide is made public for some reason, the stories aren’t told. Here at Redheaded Blackbelt we’ve been following that tradition but as we saw the increasing number of suicides, we’ve been struggling. We do think that the silence might help individual families in the wake of the death heal and we don’t want to add to their pain. But, we’ve come to the conclusion that the silence is not helping. We need to be aware of the large number of people killing themselves in this county. There is no shame in suicide but there is shame in not bringing attention to the epidemic that is sweeping our communities. And being human, numbers don’t help us understand as well as stories do.

September is Suicide Prevention Month. During this month, we will be reporting suicides if we learn of them. If possible, we’ll try to present the emotional cost to families, friends, and emergency personnel. We hope by seeing the human reality that we as a community can begin to address the problem. Numbers don’t seem to catch people’s attention the way that stories do.

Nonetheless let’s take a look at the statistics:  According to the California Department of Public Health, Humboldt ranked as the seventh worst county (out of 58) for suicides in California from 2011 through 2013.  Just to get a sense of how abysmal this is, this means our rates of suicide at that time were three times as high as Los Angeles County and almost twice as high as the national average.

From 2009-2011 (the last where these kinds of statistics are available), suicide was Humboldt’s third leading cause of premature death.

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Graphic from Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services.

In 2011, there were 24 suicides total in Humboldt. In 2015, there were 43. That was a 79% increase. Knowing that comparisons between single years can be misleading, we decided to look at five year increments and our most recent five year span is up almost 34% from the number of suicides during the 2003 to 2007 year span–from 127 to 170.

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As is usual in the United States, the number of males who commit suicide in Humboldt is much higher than the number of females. From January 1, 2011 through March of this year, 130 men and 48 women have killed themselves. Typically, men are four times more likely than women to die from suicide. However, men here are “only” about three times more likely.

Across the country women actually have higher rate of attempting suicide but more men actually die from their attempts. One study indicates this is because women tend to use slower acting methods such as drug overdose which allows some time for them to be found and resuscitated and men use methods that are more immediately lethal such as firearms and hanging.

In Humboldt, the three main ways to commit suicide were guns, some form of asphyxiation by strangling (frequently this was hanging) and some form of drug overdose. By far men chose guns. Seventy-seven died by shooting themselves in the head or chest from the beginning of 2011 to the end of March of this year.  By contrast, only 12 women preferred this method.

By gender suicide

Separating the deaths by gender in Humboldt County shows that men generally chose to end their life with guns and women most frequently chose drugs.

Women, on the other hand, preferred to use drugs/alcohol. Twenty chose this method of death during the same period. Eleven men chose this method.

Strangulation usually by hanging was used by thirty-two men and twelve women. A variety of methods including cutting with knives or inhaling carbon monoxide made up the remaining choices.

suicide graph by type

During this month, there will be more resources than normal available to the community to deal with this epidemic. For instance, the Southern Humboldt Family Resource Center is hosting a Suicide Awareness Week, Sept. 19-23rd. On Sept. 20th, there will be a Suicide Prevention assembly for Miranda Junior High and South Fork High School. On the 22nd, there will be a community remembrance dinner from 5-7 p.m. If you would like to help the Family Resource Center, contact Amy at 923-1147.

Below are links that could save a life if you or someone you know needs help:

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48 comments

  • So, if you want your suicide reported here, do it this month? Sorry, I don’t get the logic.

    • I am going to try out reporting suicides. Trying to balance the pain this might cause family with raising awareness of terrible problem. If I find I’m wrong, I’ll stop.

      • Yes hi my friend matthew T Dog Walker was found dead in his home on Rancho Sequoia just a few days ago trying to find out if you had any information maybe you could post his friends is family we all love him

  • Thank you, Kym, for shedding light on this important social affliction. I had no idea that it was such an epidemic in Humboldt County. I am so sad for those who experience this type of loss.

    It would be interesting to know some county statistics on age and the reasons behind the suicides. I’ll betcha mental illness (psychosis, depression), chemical dependency and loss of hope or frustration caused by poverty or other types of loss are behind most of these in which case, this is OUR collective problem to solve because these conditions touch all of us in one form or another.

    It seems, also, that we’ve lost, over the past decades, some of our emotional resiliency, resourcefulness, and general human will to overcome adversity – as individuals and as a society. The uptick in suicide and homicide in our society seems secondary in importance to what motivates people to resort to any type of violence against themselves or others. Non-profits and individual families shouldn’t be burdened with the responsibility to resolve this mess.

    Its a complicated issue that deserves personal reflection as well as public investigation.

    Thanks again for the report!

  • Family member of a lost loved one

    As a family member of someone that committed suicide last year it was much worse seeing the article about it on here. I think more articles with statistics like this one would be more beneficial. Or maybe more articles on what, even though it’s not much, mental health resources are out there would be a better option.

    • I am so sorry we caused pain. But one of the things leading to my decision is that there have been articles on this problem but I still know people who are fairly news savvy who say, “I never see any suicides reported. It must not be that bad.”

  • Perhaps they could be reported without names.

  • No shame in suicide? I can’t think of a more shameful way to die. It’s a selfish act that ruins the lives of friends and family. Basically your ending your own suffering by forcing the people who care about you to deal with it instead.

    • There is a lot of evidence that many suicides are caused by mental illness. I can’t imagine blaming an ill person.

      • That’s why the collective zombies hate smokers. Smokers self medicate. Ever search the benefits of smoking? I doubt it. Carry on with your if it weren’t for a favorite & easily obtained tool, there wouldn’t be so many suicides report. Which is capital BS. They will just find other ways to get away from zombie nazi nannies.

    • Selfish? If only it were that simple. It is hard for someone mentally healthy to imagine the despair that would drive someone to kill themselves.

    • I would suggest yours is the more selfish attitude, Huh.

  • Thank you Kim for writing this . It should not be ignored this crisis.it’s my own personal feeling that as the heroin epidemic spreads we will see more of this unfortunatey .Some coroners are ruling overdoses and classifying them as homicides it’s my belief this County should consider that.

  • This is a county that has a very disproportionate amount of young people that are self serving and self absorbed so when a suicidal person turns to their friends they receive little to no support. It would take me hours to explain how screwed up the mental health care services are here but the difficulty of finding the care you need is overwhelming and if the person needing the care has to acquire it on their own it becomes a challenge that takes more energy than they have to give. I say this all with first hand knowledge, I suffered with suicide ideation for three years and I’m beyond grateful I’m leaving this county because it is not the healing place that the back to the landers were trying to create in the 60’s and 70’s and there are too few giving people with great morals my age here.

    • Hey we tried! We tried to heal ourselvrs and each other while we healed the land and learned self-reliance in growing children and food, building homesteads and even our energy use. We did a lot and saved some wilderness and spread seeds of our hippie dream across the world that have sprouted. Meanwhile, here in Humboldt it all got sucked into growing weed for more money to buy “hippie” consumer goods and hire others to do our building, plumbing, electrical, etc. I see the empty despair every day as now the money is leaving and we have what? LOTS of substance addiction that requires large incomes! Not much self-reliance or job skills! Just don’t say we didn’t try. And we sure did do some good for awhile.

  • I think reporting is a good idea, who knew we had such a problem here? Hiding it away like some dark secret doesn’t seem like a good choice. Maybe if people were able to see the devastation that it causes to family and friends they might be more likely to seek help.

  • Anyone else notice that though the suicide rate is double the state average the drug and alcohol overdose is three times as high as the state average.

  • i vote yes,cover them-maybe we’ll learn to see them coming and have saved some one– just maybe…….

  • As a person affected by suicide within my family, thank you. If more people talked about it, maybe more will share their despair with others before it comes to suicide.

    • Yes, it should be a much easier subject to approach and then hopefully anyone feeling suicidal can speak more openly about it and get help.

  • It would be interesting to know how many people committed suicide because they didn’t want to die a slow agonizing death due to some sort of terminal illness. Some states have assisted suicide laws, California being one of them. Humboldt County does not have assisted suicide because the hospitals are Catholic. Although I strongly disagree with that religious philosophy, I find it hard to critisize a hospital that has saved my life from cancer and probably that slow agonizing death that we all dread.

    With all due respect for my good friend kym, I don’t think the epidemic will be cured with publicity.

    With so much “medicine” in Humboldt County one would think that we shouldn’t have a problem. I wonder what our problem might be….. Is that something that we can talk about? Or is that subject too sacred. Even good things can get out of control. I think that there might be a connection.

    • Ernie, I’m always of the opinion that the elephant in the room that isn’t seen is more likely to kill you than the elephant you do see.

      • In this case the elephant that will kill you is ones self. It’s a long, and complicated, trip down the rabbit hole. The wrong turns that one has made in their lives are irreversible.

        From my personal expirience, a lot of intelligent well adjusted people are moving away, and a lot ne’er-do-well oportunists are moving here. Granted, that is a small percentage of the population, but maybe it fits the demograpics for suicide. If that is the case, how do we change who moves away, and who moves here? Problems, more than just suicide, are indemic to Humboldt County. It won’t be changed easily. Even a train can be steered, but it takes changing the direction of the tracks.

        As a side note: What if you find that blogs are part of the problem? Can we, should we, or better yet would we change that?

        • If I were convinced that blogs were part of the problem, I would change or even shut down my blog…but you would have to do a lot of convincing to make me think that, as a whole, hiding is better than talking.

          • Didn’t you mean that the other way around, or do you actually agree with Ernie?

            • Well, I can’t say that was as clear as I would like but if you read it slowly, it says …I believe that talking is better than secrecy and it would take a whole lot of convincing to make me think otherwise.

  • Kym,

    Did you ever think that sites airing other people worst moments of their lives on digital social media so they can never escape that moment the rest of their existence might not be helping people going through trying situations and entertaining thoughts of self termination.

    I am sure this relatively new phenomenon of social media shaming and forever encapsulating personal failures has attributed increased factors leading people to consider suicide.

    Now you desire to publicly highlight and enshrine someone’s individual struggle to the bitter end.

    I feel so sorry for the individuals that reside in places of such fear, sorrow, depression, and dispare that they think about, attempt, or succeed suicide.

    Furthermore, It is agonizing for me to fathom the pain that the surviving family members will further endure because of these stories. Moreover, the ostensibly, never-ending pain that will come in time when a grandchild or great grandchild does a family history project for school and is slammed with your stories.

    If one ends their life in such a tragic way, their last story should be there obituary prepared by a loved one not by a tabloid operating under what ever agenda it desires.

    • I do think about how stories of people committing crimes or killing themselves will cause pain to their families. (What I mostly notice though is that if the suspect is a minority or poor or drug addicted, folks don’t seem to be too concerned with their pain or their family’s pain. BUT should a “nice,” middle-class person gets in the news then suddenly everyone is concerned.) I’ve had some personal experience with this–my brother has been arrested, my cousin committed suicide, my husband’s brother is in jail. It is hard to see someone you love talked about by folks who don’t know their situation and know their good sides.

      But, in my experience, hiding things only leads to gossip and lies–neither conducive to healing, moving forward and finding solutions to society’s ills.

  • There are many families who might be willing to share their personal stories and others who may not. Personally, I’m most interested in the sociological angle but want to lend a hand to those who are hurting too – even if it means reading their story. While the sole answer may not be found in publicity, as an educational tool – as Kym has done – this conversation is a good start. The advocates who speak out DO make a difference as do those who listen and pay it forward.

    We have vast amounts of mental illness education at our fingertips and a basic structure in place to help us deal with issues of mental health but our system is very badly corroded due to horrific long-term [financial and political] neglect and the cumulative effects of all sorts of drug abuse and addiction, poverty, and social changes that have festered for generations. This problem needs to become a priority and fixed from the top down and the bottom up.

    I do not believe the answers lie in separating people further by allowing them to pump more sedatives into their systems and/or further normalizing the building of walls (symbolic or otherwise) between people. But I do believe that we need to return to being honest about the things we need over the things we want and to find common ground in order to rebuild. On some level, I think we all know we can be part of the solution.

    Thanks again, Kym, for highlighting this subject. While the various SoHum drug arrests are as fascinating as train wrecks, my parting thought is always the same: Each of those “douche bags” (a favorite label on this page) may at one time have been a parent’s only hope. And as many times as these criminals have failed themselves, the system and/or someone failed them first.

  • A Mothers POV on the broken system here

    I would like to share with you my experience as a mother attempting to get mental health services for my son who was suicidal from 10-14 yrs old.
    In the first 3 yrs, I called 179 therapists, sent 124 emails, (found on the ncamph website) reached out to 4 agencies for referrals. Of the 179 calls 6 were returned of those 4 were not taking new clients 1 moved away & the last one did not take insurance & cost $160 a session cash paid up front. Insurance reimbursed $50 a session & it was recommended he have 4 sessions a month. This is suicide of course the money shouldn’t matter, so I worked a 2nd job & cleaned houses in between to pay for it & make up for the missed work hours from my primary job.
    Of all the emails I sent none were ever returned. The 4 agencies referral list were so out of date most if not all were either retired or moved away. The few that I did reach through these referrals were either not taking new clients or were between $175-$190 a session no insurance accepted.
    Insurance takes 4-6 weeks to reimburse out of pocket expenses.
    At year 3 the therapist was solidly not a good fit for my son. What to do? What to do? It was hands down the scariest time in my life. I reached out in Redding & Medford, ultimately finding a perfect fit and a therapist who took insurance & was considered “in-network” in Redding. So for 4 years twice a month we drove to Redding. Thankfully I have amazing employers who understood the time off requests & allowed me to take so much time off for these appointments.
    What if I couldn’t have taken the time off? Would he be one of your statistics? That thought makes me shudder. I don’t know how to convey the terror I lived with these 4 years, every morning I woke 30 minutes before him praying, begging that when his alarm went off he turned it off, terrified that after I tucked him in, reminded him how loved he was that somehow the thoughts that ran through his head won this night & something awful happened in the middle of the night while I was sleeping with one eye open and a foot on deck. Weekends were always the hardest. I dreaded them.
    Last year I sent him off to college, finding a therapist happened within a week, finding a good fit took 2 months. All took insurance. He went to college in an area similar to ours, demographics closely similar as well. What is their mental health workers community doing differently? I’m still not sure but I can tell you one thing I noticed they talk to each other, the one therapist that wasn’t a good fit didn’t take it personal he referred my son to the person he is still seeing saying to him, I thought about it & I think you guys will get along great. Easy as that.
    I wish I had the solution and an easy answer, I don’t.
    I think most of us locals can look around & see many of the homeless or addicts are people & kids we went to school with, many that we knew were growing up in terrible situations & many more dealing with mental health issues, how many could have been saved with accessible mental health?
    How many would not be self medicating if it was available & affordable?

    • Thank you for expressing extremely well the challenges that families have to face.

    • A Mothers POV: My tears as I read your story didn’t come from pity – they came from pride. You are amazing and you are saving your son’s life. I imagine you are following your instincts as a mother but if everyone was as dedicated and self-sacrificing a parent as you have been – in spite of this broken healthcare system – we wouldn’t have many of the problems we have today. Bravo for your bravery. He’s a very special and fortunate boy. Thank you so much for sharing the details of your story with us!

  • Thank You Kym for bring this out in the open…Lost a very best friend last year who was like a brother to me and my family….

  • I am a survivor of an attempted suicide by prescription drugs that were prescribed. Many are shocked when they hear my story because I am a happy guy and had a great family upbringing. I truly didn’t understand what I was doing and the finality at the time of the attempt and the effect on loved ones. Ended up in ICU for several days and a miracle that I am alive today. Thank you Redwood Memorial Hospital and all the staff that helped in saving my life 6 years ago. Have never used drugs and BIG PHARMA almost took my life. Would like to see the statistics on how many were on medication prior to have attempted or actually took their life. I believe the numbers are astonishing. Thank you Kym for providing stats. Would be great to read a few stories of survivors and the hurdles that many had to overcome.

    • If you are interested in sharing your story. My email is mskymkemp@gmail.com. This goes for anyone who is affected by suicide–survivors, emergency personnel, family.

    • A convenient story you’ve told there and it’s your story and im not saying whether it’s true or false.not surprised Kym would jump right on .Because it fits the narrative some would prefer.However big Pharma hasn’t created the heroin epidemic and heroin sickness only gets worse as the cuts get more pure. Glad you survived but i don’t appreciate the narrative because I believe it’s false but that’s my opinion.and I’m sure I’ll be reading more of your story soon.

  • I suggest we follow the cries of the people, & the hateful spiteful way some people are treated thanks to the public health nazi’s.
    Even during typing this, I can hear the collective voices angrily yelling the “should’s & should not’s” the zombies are brainwashed into chanting.
    If measure 56 goes through, your chart will skyrocket throughout the months.
    The zombies will cheer.
    If you dare list the beneficial reason’s for not doing as the zombies demand, you are classified as a crazy or as a shill.
    The people have challenged bloggers, newspapers, city hall, to research the benefits of the products they so happily bash for cash. Crickets.
    We barely have any individual rights left. They’re all collective now.
    This is the outcome of the outcry.
    The zombies cheer.

  • Some of the people who posted hateful messages on the “4 young people” who died in an accident really need to think on this.

  • Stating the obvious, our broken mental health system (and all its tributaries) has become an epidemic. People living in big cities don’t understand how these issues (including increased access to addictive substances) impact rural communities. The same problems are diluted within large populations so it’s harder to realize the impact. These are the same people who believe that using recreational drugs is okay for EVERYONE. They don’t consider their neighbor’s potential for addiction – past histories of abuse, genetic precursors, external and internal pain – and worse, it’s not recognized that long-term suffering isn’t a normal part of life and therefore don’t act. And even worse, some simply look away and maybe, dope up to make it easier.

    The conditions in Humboldt County illustrate why “free for all” thinking does not work – at least not anymore. Drugs (legal and illegal) have been destroying Humboldt for decades. The resulting oozing wounds became noticeable at least 20 years ago – more money laundering store fronts, more mainstream people growing in closets for profit, still quiet. Ten years ago, we started losing our kids – out-of-town college kids dropping out and staying through the summer, nesting in our forests, seeking peace, love, and belonging. Today, there are entire families with babies being bred into the system. We all know someone who’s been arrested. It’s the new normal.

    Obviously, this is not everybody’s story but everybody is impacted by it; whether it’s because we have to explain to our 5-year-old nephews why the person in front of us in the coffee shop line has vacant eyes and is twitching and covered in sores or why the person camping in our wildlife marsh is offering us weed at 8am or why two bums crashed into cops in the Co-op parking lot – Tuperware in plain sight, full of meth. No, this is not the peaceful livin’ of a hippie lifestyle. It doesn’t resemble where I was raised in the 70s and 80s. These are the result of untreated septic, gangrenous wounds. It can’t all be blamed on “outsiders” either. I was born in Arcata. My parents were from Sonoma and Orange Counties. Action is the responsibility of those who live here.

    Is there anyone in the county who can act as an advocate/organizer in mental healthcare arena? Someone with intelligence, a sense of self-sacrifice, extreme political savvy, will, ability to collaborate with a broad spectrum of people, wisdom, and stamina….? There’s got to be someone to lead and organize those who are closest to the problem and who seek long-term change.

    • 20 years ago lines up with the hate campaigns, tax increases, loss of employment, loss of businesses, & loss of shelter. For the collective common good & healthy communities bs. Imagine that.
      You want a healthy community? Then overturn the nazi nanny state wars against drugs, especially smoking. Stop the armed robberies of citizens through taxing. Stop throwing people into the streets just for lighting up.
      Research the benefits of nicotine. Read up on the smokers paradox. Stop believing the propaganda against citizens.
      Neurological disorders, cognitive dissidence, schizophrenia, alzheimers, parkinsons, brain cell damage, and more are relieved by self medicating, by smoking. Most of all, stress is relieved, through comforting habits, like the Constitution that assures the liberty to offer smoking & non smoking establishments. Force is evil. Taxing the poor outrageously is evil. Attacking others for finding relief from a smoke is the most evil of all.

  • Drugs can cause psychosis seen it more than once our mental health system is in crisis because of an overloaded addiction problem in our area. Now doctors don’t even want to come here because they know they’ll be begged for prescription drugs and seeing the abuse of our Healthcare System every day can bring a doctor down very fast.

  • Who… is 100 percent correct. Health professionals labeled it as a psychosis episode. I am in the 5% that they don’t expect to see and was told that attorneys and doctors have been in the same position. Many different paths can lead to the same end result. I do agree hard drugs are a contributing factor such as heroin and meth… my situation began with stress, lack of sleep and eventually blackouts. I have never used drugs.

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