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Officials’ struggles with mental health put focus on suicide rate

ST. LOUIS – Suicides are on the rise in the U.S. and in St. Louis, where high-profile individuals underscore the upswing. 

In August 2019, then-state Rep. Bruce Franks gave up his seat, citing mental health issues that led to thoughts of suicide. 

Just last month, state Sen. Jamilah Nasheed tweeted that she too had considered suicide. 

“Okay, I’m about to be real transparent!” Nasheed said via Twitter. “I’ve been weak and suicidal after the loss of my grandmother and my brother EV but I’m not that selfish to pull the trigger and hurt the people that I love … I’m different from my mom.” 

Nasheed was 3 when her mother killed herself. Nasheed’s grandmother took on the responsibility of raising her and her three brothers.  

“No one can fathom how it affects family members,” the senator said in an interview, relaying that talking about it was making her emotional. 

For several years, Nasheed said, her mother’s suicide devastated her, often on a daily basis. 

She had been very upset with her mother, but she said she relinquished those feelings once she understood suicide as a mental health issue, having considered it herself.

“I thought it was selfish and wondered how someone with a child, who they loved so much, could take their own life and hurt the child that way,” Nasheed said, describing the aftermath of her mother’s suicide. 

“I didn’t know how badly mental health could affect someone’s life and really make them not want to live anymore,” Nasheed added.  

The key for Nasheed in avoiding pulling the trigger on herself was making it to the next day, she said. That, and the fact that she didn’t want her family to walk in on her with her “brains blown out” as in her beloved mother’s suicide.  

“If a person is thinking about suicide, if they could just pause and make it to the next day to live beyond the darkness of that day, because every day is different …  And I believe if my mother was able to just get to the next day, she would still be here,” Nasheed said.

She has a semicolon (;) tattooed near her wrist. The semicolon punctuation mark represents a pause, greater than that of a comma. 

For Franks, the pause was more like that of period mark. He resigned his Missouri House seat to get a handle on his mental health. He cited the deaths of his friend Sylvester Hamilton and his godson Gerrian Green. 

In 2015, State Auditor Tom Schweich died from a self-inflicted gunshot at his home in Clayton. He had just announced a bid for governor.

A month later, Schweich’s aide Robert “Spence” Jackson also took his own life, in the same way, in Jefferson City.

Though Franks’ and Nasheed’s reasons for considering suicide were tied to the deaths of friends and family members, respectively, people’s reasons vary.

“At the individual level, there is never a single cause of suicide,” Dr. Christine Moutier, chief medical officer of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, wrote in a 2019 report by the American Psychological Association. “That confluence of multiple risk factors makes it a trickier business to explain a population-level rise.” 

The American Psychological Association reports that nationwide, the suicide rate rose 33 percent from 1999 through 2017, from 10.5 to 14 suicides per 100,000 people. Suicide is the fourth leading cause of death for Americans ages 35-54, and the second for people ages 10-34. It remains the 10th leading cause of U.S. deaths overall.

Missouri ranked 18th nationally in suicide deaths in 2017, with a rate of 18.5 per 100,000 residents; suicide was the 10th leading cause of death here, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The overall U.S. rate was 14 percent.

In 2015, Missouri ranked 16th nationally in suicide deaths. Suicide was also the state’s 10th leading cause of death that year, with a mortality rate of 17 per 100,000 compared with the national average of 13.3 per 100,000 that year, according to the CDC. 

From 2005 to 2015, St. Louis averaged 40.3 suicides per year, according to the City of St. Louis Department of Health and the Center for Health Information, Planning and Research. 

During that same time period, the rate of suicide for men in the city was 20.4 percent compared with 5.0 percent for women. The highest rates were among 25- to 64-year-olds. 

Suicides in the city of St. Louis continue to happen more among whites than among other ethnic groups. In 2015, the city recorded 36 suicide deaths, 64 percent of which were of white males. Of those, 23.6 percent were ages 45-64 and 10.5 percent were in the 25-44 age group. 

A major factor in suicide is depression, especially when it is severe. 

The American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic criteria for Major Depressive Disorder indicate that in order to be diagnosed with such severe depression, a person must have experienced five or more of the following symptoms for a continuous period of at least two weeks.

  • Feelings of sadness, hopelessness, depressed mood
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in activities
  • Change in weight or appetite
  • Feeling tired or not having any energy 
  • Feelings of guilt or worthlessness 
  • Difficulties concentrating and paying attention 
  • Thoughts of death or suicide 
  • Insomnia (difficulty sleeping) or sleeping too much. 

The average rate of depression reported in Missouri from 2011 to 2015 was 21 percent of the population compared with the national average of 18.4. Of Missourians reporting depression during this time period, whites were 1.4 percent more likely than blacks to report depression. 

People living below the poverty level were two and half times more likely to have depression than those above the poverty level. 

Although females were 1.7 percent more likely to report depression compared with males here, the latter were 3.8 percent more likely to kill themselves. 

From 2011 to 2015, there were 1,007 females and 3,820 males in Missouri who committed suicide. 

While suicide rates have been slowly increasing in all regions of Missouri, the St. Louis metropolitan area has consistently registered the lowest average rate of suicide deaths for at least the past five years, at 14 per 100,000. 

People can help reduce suicides by offering support and understanding and by having conversations about mental health. Also helpful is learning the risk factors and warning signs of someone who may be thinking about suicide and helping to connect that person to resources.

In addition, we can spread the word about free, confidential emotional support services that are available 24 hours a day and seven days a week from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Lifeline’s number is 1-800-273-8255.

More information is available on the City of St. Louis Department of Health’s web presence at: https://www.stlouis-mo.gov/government/departments/health

Bill Beene

bill.beene@thenorthsider.com Bill Beene was born and raised in north St. Louis. He has been a journalist for 12 years. He enjoys cooking and roller skating. He lives in the historic Ville neighborhood.

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