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Three murder-suicides in recent months abnormal for Harford; more seeking services from Harford crisis center as pandemic drags on

Three recent murder-suicides in Harford County have cast light on issues of mental health and self-harm — coinciding with more people seeking help at the Klein Family Crisis Center as the coronavirus pandemic wears on.

Six county residents have died in three apparent murder-suicides; a father and son and two married couples who were found dead of gunshot wounds in their homes between mid-October and late November.

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Figures from the county’s health department show that suicide is more common in Harford than some other counties in the state, but these particular three are “alarming and concerning,” said Jennifer Redding, the executive director of behavioral health at the University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health.

The murder-suicides coincides with an increase in people seeking services from the Klein Family Crisis Center — UCH’s mental health center in Bel Air, Redding said.

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While the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and associated restrictions that have altered our normal lifestyles cannot be pinned as the cause of the increase, the pandemic has made times tougher — economically and socially, she said. Three murder-suicides in a short period of time are abnormal for the county, as is the increase in the number of patients with substance, anxiety and depression issues seeking help.

“Certainly, what I think is gaining more and more acknowledgement is, while we have to be aware of the physical fallout of COVID-19, the mental health fallout is continuing to grow,” she said. “In March and April … it was an acute sort of response, but now here we are eight months later, it is a chronic response.”

Maryland’s suicide rate per 100,000 people has teetered between 8.4 and 10.2 from 2009 to 2018 — the latest available data from the Maryland Department of Health. Harford County generally has a higher rate than the state, and the county’s 44 suicides in 2018 were only 12 behind Baltimore City’s, a much larger jurisdiction with more than twice the population.

Anecdotally, Redding said that rural areas generally tend to suffer from higher suicide and addiction rates due to a lack of services, lack of awareness of services or boredom that leads to drug abuse and addiction, which can contribute to suicidal thoughts.

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From Jan. 1 through Nov. 15, 623 people have stayed in resident crisis beds at the Klein Family Crisis Center, which opened last year, Redding said. The beds are used for suicidal persons, drug addicts with a high potential for relapse or anyone who could benefit from an intensive therapeutic program, among other reasons. In March of this year, the center was averaging eight guests at its walk-in urgent care center. Over the past month, the urgent care center has averaged 13 per day.

Underneath the obvious pressures of the international pandemic, mental health issues are still present and often hard to spot, Redding said.

In the case of the murder-suicide of Jason Douglas DeWitt, 38, and his 3-year-old son, Grayson DeWitt, neighbors said they saw the two playing outside only a week before the elder DeWitt shot his son and himself in the upstairs bedroom of their Bel Air home. By neighbors’ accounts, DeWitt was quiet, worked from home and showed no propensity for violence.

DeWitt’s is not a novel case in principle. Redding said red flags can go overlooked or untreated because of the stigma against mental illness and substance abuse treatment. The sheriff’s office had not been to any of the three homes before the murder-suicides, sheriff’s office spokesperson Cristie Hopkins said.

The Klein Family Crisis Center, Redding said, is there to treat anyone who is having a mental health or substance abuse issue with counseling, group therapy and a safe place to stay.The center also accepts calls from friends and family of someone who may be struggling. If they get a call from a concerned onlooker, center staff will reach out to the person in question.

Sarah Quinn, director of crisis response for Harford County’s Office on Mental Health, said suicidal thoughts often have their roots in perceived burdensomeness — someone thinking they would be worth more dead than alive. The stigma surrounding mental health treatment, Quinn said, can turn off some people in need from seeking help.

Mental illness, Quinn said, tends to be viewed as a polar issue: either someone is mentally ill or they are well. In reality, she said, mental health is a continuum of ill and well. As someone takes medicine for a cold, so too should someone seek treatment for mental health issues, even if they are not considering suicide, she said.

Shifting the conversation toward the view of mental health as a gradient, and making county residents aware of the office’s services, could spur treatment, she said.

The office on mental health operates a 24-hour hotline for mental health issues, 1-800-NEXT-STEP, that connects callers with counselling and other services for free, Quinn said. Since Aug. 17, when the office on mental health took over the line, it has fielded 1,651 incoming calls and dispatched counselors for face-to-face crisis responses 232 times.

“You do not have to wait until you are in crisis to call that line,” she said.

Simply talking to someone who is having mental health or substance abuse issues can be helpful, Redding said. Curbing suicide deaths requires citizens to be proactive and check on each other and “have the courage to have the conversation” about uncomfortable issues of mental well-being.

“We need to pay attention to those in our lives and know that times are tough right now,” she said. “We need to listen; we need to talk with those around us.”

The willingness to have frank conversations about mental health, Quinn said, is hugely important. Asking about another person’s state of mind can be uncomfortable — or provoke offense — but discussion and monitoring for signs like increased drug use, donating possessions and depression could save lives.

“If you believe that you are a burden to other folks, you are less likely to bring your pain to them,” Quinn said. “Sometimes you need an invitation.”

The Harford County Office on Mental Health maintains a 24-hotline, 1-800-NEXT-STEP or 410-874-0711 locally, that can connect callers to behavioral health services. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 800-273-8255.

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