Harford police calls show a startling number of suicide-related incidents

There were 14 calls to the Harford County Sheriff's Office between Jan. 18 and Jan. 22 of people reporting that someone was either attempting suicide or contemplating it.

Although the calls for service seem to show a startling number of suicide-related incidents, including one for a student of elementary school age, Lt. Marc Junkerman said in late January it was too early to tell if there is a significant trend.

Since then, however, not a week has gone by without multiple calls to police and emergency responders for attempted and, sometimes, successful suicides around the county. There were several such calls last week, according to police radio transmissions.

The most recent calls for service logs from the Harford County Sheriff's Office, from March 29 through April 1, had six suicide-related issues. A call came in Monday morning for a suicide attempt at the Harford County Detention Center, as well.

One of this year's calls involved the suicide of a former high school and college basketball star, Monroe C. "Monnie" Brown, who was found dead in his Havre de Grace home on March 9. Mr. Brown had once served time in prison on a drug dealing conviction and had recently been charged with drug offenses following a traffic stop.

A month earlier, Maryland State Police sent a Medevac to deal with a suicide attempt at the park and ride lot near the I-95/Route 155 interchange in Havre de Grace. Another Harford jail inmate hung himself earlier this year.

Sheriff Jesse Bane has said one of his most difficult roles is providing proper mental health services to the jail's inmate population – many of whom are not dangerous lawbreakers who need to be locked up in a penal setting.

Daily crises

It takes two years to see any increase in calls but the sheriff's office typically has approximately 750 calls per year for people in crisis – some potential suicides, Junkerman said in the earlier interview.

"The fact that people are in crisis and calling law enforcement happens on a daily basis," he added.

In many of the calls, it is just a case of someone needing help, Junkerman said, and in response to the need, the sheriff's office developed the crisis intervention team, or CIT, division. Officers who make up the team are specially trained to deal with people in crisis.

The police academy has also incorporated mental health training into the program as part of a new approach to give officers general knowledge on gauging crisis situations. The crisis team is used as a resource, Junkerman said, to help develop the best course of action for those types of calls.

Prior to the new program, police only had two options for those type of calls: take someone to the hospital or to the Harford County Detention Center. Now they have a third option, diversion, which allows officers to develop a safety plan for people in crisis, Junkerman said.

"We're coming up with alternative solutions to keep that consumer in society," he added.

Despite the new diversion technique, Junkerman emphasized that safety comes first and the officers will still take someone in if they have become a threat to themselves or others. The best approach to these type of situations, however, is prevention.

Missing signs

In many cases, after a person has reached the point of contemplating suicide, Junkerman said loved ones are "kicking themselves" for missing all the signs. To try and prevent that from happening, he suggested being in touch with loved ones and talking to them.

This spring, the Behavioral Health Unit is expected to open at the Harford County Detention Center to further help the sheriff's office administer mental health to people there.

Harford County also has an Office of Mental Health as a resource, which posted a youth crisis hotline on the main page, 1-800-422-0009. A suicide hotline was used in an incident on Jan. 30, when deputies were able to effectively handle the person in need.

Earlier this year, deputies responded to Harford Square Drive after a suicide hotline notified them that someone called to report he wanted to hang himself and had a knife, according to a police report. Deputies were able to talk to the man, who was later taken to Upper Chesapeake Medical Center.

Trends, misconceptions

Although it may appear the number of suicide calls are related to bleak weather, Harford County Health Department Public Information Officer William Wiseman said that is a common misconception.

Many people think suicide rates are higher in the winter, especially because of seasonal affective disorder, a type of depression which affects people when they are exposed to less daylight, Wiseman wrote in an e-mail earlier this year.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as the National Center for Health Statistics, suicide rates are at the highest in spring and at the lowest point in winter, according to Wiseman. Reasons for those statistics, however, are unclear, he added.

Harford County's suicide rate is slightly higher than the state average of 9.6 percent, at 11.7 percent, but the difference is not regarded as significant, Sharon Lipford, deputy director of the Department of Community Services, said.

In many cases, it is hard to calculate the suicide rate because not all suicides are accounted for, including ones that come in as single car accidents, overdoses or accidental deaths, Lipford explained.

"I don't think we are extraordinary or significantly above anybody," she said.

Getting help

There are a number of county programs available to people "in crisis," according to Lipford. The county offers mental health services from counseling to day programs and a mobile crisis team.

The programs in Harford County are "very high quality," Lipford said earlier, and the crisis program is often the starting point for people who need help. This particular office is open seven days a week, from 8 a.m. to midnight on weekdays and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekends, she added.

Counselors on the crisis team are available to talk to people on the phone as well as go out into the community and meet people at their house or in a neutral zone, Lipford said. Their number is 410-638-5248.

"[It's] one of our first lines of defense," she said.

The mobile crisis team is a free service run by Sheppard Pratt and funded by a grant at the state level. The crisis team also works in conjunction with the crisis intervention team division of the Harford County Sheriff's Office, Lipford said.

That program is "highly effective," she said, adding that the mobile crisis teams answer more than 1,000 health crisis calls a year and goes into the community to help these people.

In fiscal year 2011, Lipford wrote in an e-mail, 558 people were served through mobile crisis, 1,222 people were served face-to-face in the community and 2,683 calls were handled by the mobile crisis team.

Another point of contact for people in distress is the Office of Mental Health, 410-803-8726.

Acting before crisis

Many people, however, are unaware of the mental health programs available to them until they need them.

The issues in Harford County that trigger suicide attempts are not different from other places, Lipford said, and many of the depressed thoughts stem from employment status, relationship issues, addictions and even legal problems that people could be caught up in.

Common signs are feeling helpless, changes in eating or sleeping, thoughts about harming oneself, being generally depressed, crying and being despondent, Lipford added.

What the mental professionals really look at is if a person is feeling helpless and hopeless, she said.

"Honestly, I think people may reach a crisis point and they don't know how to overcome it," she said.

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