Ky High Suicide Rate

Kentucky's High Suicide Rate

by Deborah Highland, Courier-Journal

State above average in people taking own lives; cause of death is second-highest among young

Jan and Stephen Ulrich visited the Resthaven Cemetery grave site of her son, Nathan Eisert, who shot himself to death in June. ''Sometimes I just want to bring a sleeping bag out here and lay by him,'' Jan Ulrich said. The Ulriches are part of a group that hopes to raise awareness about Kentucky's high suicide rate.

Photo by Bill Luster

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Jenny Aker's hands trembled as she pulled the 11 1/2 -inch quilt squares from a plastic shopping bag.

On those squares are photos of young people who have killed themselves. A picture of her 23-year-old son is among them.

''You're actually in physical pain,'' she said. ''It hurts so bad.''

Aker and others are part of a group that is putting together a quilt of 19 suicide victims to bring attention to a large problem in Kentucky, where an average of 500 people kill themselves every year.

At 12.8 deaths per 100,000 population each year, Kentucky's numbers exceed the national average of 11.45 deaths per 100,000. The most recent statistics available are from 1996 to '99 and were reported in preliminary data from the Kentucky Injury Prevention and Research Center at the University of Kentucky.

According to the American Association of Suicidology, Kentucky ranked 21st in the nation in suicides in 1999.

After accidental deaths, suicide is the second leading cause of death for 15to 34year-olds in Kentucky -- and that has parents and officials alarmed.

Those numbers are why the Kentucky Suicide Prevention Planning Group formed in March, hoping to raise awareness and look into Kentucky's high rate.

''Kids start hearing about drugs and alcohol and firearms safety and cigarettes in grade school. . . . But nobody ever talks about this other thing,'' said Jan Ulrich, whose son committed suicide in June.

The prevention group, organized by the state Department for Mental Health, includes representatives from UK, Western Kentucky University, families of people who have committed suicide, the office of aging and hospice, public school officials and others. About 30 people have attended the group's six meetings.

Most of the state's suicides are in the 35 and older age group, but the rate among the 15-34 group is the highest in the state. Aker, like many others, wants some answers.

Kentucky suicide statistics

Men in the state are five times as likely to kill themselves compared to women.

Guns were used in 73 percent of suicides.

Kentucky's rate of 12.8 deaths per 100,000 residents is higher than the national average of 11.45 deaths per 100,000 residents.

* There are higher suicide rates in three areas:

Top causes of death

Ages 15-24

1. Accident

2. Suicide

3. Homicide

Ages 25-34

1. Accident

2. Suicide

3. Heart disease

* 500 on average kill themselves annually.

SOURCE: Preliminary data from Kentucky Injury Prevention and Research Center, University of Kentucky. From 1996-'99 information from death certificates compiled by Kentucky Vital Statistics Branch, Division of Epidemiology and Health Planning, Department of Public Health.

Since her son Matthew's death, Aker said she has come to know the families of some of the 19 represented on the quilt through support groups. The families from these groups have formed a tight-knit community. No one can understand what it's like to lose someone to suicide unless they've been there; it helps to know other families who have been through it, she said.

Zonnie Gatlin of Lexington, who is helping make the quilt, had a son who shot himself a little more than a year ago. She said she hopes the quilt will help illustrate the effects of suicides on families.

The quilt will be displayed at a suicide-prevention conference in Lexington on Oct. 25 at the Radisson Plaza Hotel and then in Washington, D.C., for a suicide survivor conference at a later date.

Coping with death

Aker and Gatlin become emotional when talking about their dead sons. Their eyes well with tears and their voices crack as they discuss the kinds of people their sons were and share stories about their lives.

''Suicide is a whole different kind of death,'' Aker said. ''Nobody knows how to talk to you or what to say to you.''

Ulrich's son, Nathan Eisert, 20, shot himself with his father's gun weeks after being cut from the WKU basketball team. Because he died in his dorm room in Bowling Green, Eisert's death garnered statewide attention.

Until she lost her son, Ulrich said she didn't know that suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people in the state.

''I never heard any of this before,'' Ulrich said. Her goal with the group, she said, is to make sure other families don't have to learn about the statistics the way she did.

Gatlin said she always believed suicide as something that happened in other families. ''I always thought there must be something else wrong with the family,'' she said.

But a little more than a year ago Gatlin's son, James McBride, 23, shot himself to death in a closet at his father's Winchester home.

''I'm having trouble doing anything for suicide prevention yet, but I wanted to do something to commemorate'' his life, said Gatlin as she helped Aker arrange the panels on the quilt last week.

Zonnie Gatlin, Jenny Aker and Allison Gates, from left to right, examined a quilt they are making that depicts Kentucky suicide victims. All three women have lost family members to suicide. The quilt will be displayed at a suicide-prevention conference in Lexington on Oct. 25.

WKU recently became the second Kentucky college to get involved with the prevention group. Howard Bailey, associate vice president of student affairs, attended a meeting in Lexington earlier this month.

''I think anytime you get more people informed about mental health and you take any form of steps to assist those that are potential victims of suicide, you're moving in a positive direction,'' Bailey said.

In addition, Bailey said he believes the group will provide more publicity about available mental health resources. ''Hopefully it will assist in getting students to go out and seek assistance.''

During its most recent meeting, the prevention and planning group developed three short-term goals: awareness, training/education and reporting suicide data.

Stephen Ulrich, Jan's husband and Nathan's stepfather, said the goals are a place to start. Just talking about Nathan caused Stephen Ulrich to cry.

''I never want to see another parent in the United States go through what we are going through,'' he said. ''Where I really have trouble with this whole thing is this information has been out there forever. All of it was sitting there and no one was doing anything with it.''

Other family members of people who committed suicide agree.

Aker's son shot himself two years ago.

''He was the type who had lots of friends. He was always with a lot of kids. They always said he was the life of the party,'' she said.

"Suicide is a whole different kind of death. Nobody knows how to talk to you or what to say to you."

"Kids start hearing about drugs and alcohol and firearms safety and cigarettes in grade school. . . . But nobody ever talks about this other thing."-- Jan Ulrich, mother of Nathan Eisert

Before her son killed himself, Aker said she had thought that those who committed suicide were crazy.

''I kept thinking it's just all one typical person, and it's not,'' Aker said.

Matthew Aker was a student at UK sharing an apartment in Lexington when he killed himself two years ago. He died four months after his father, J. Calvin Aker, 60, died of emphysema. The elder Aker was a former state Supreme Court justice.

Matthew had planned to follow in his father's footsteps and become a lawyer. He considered his dad to be his best friend.

Aker said she met with her son every afternoon and had dinner with him daily after his dad died. But like so many others, she said, she didn't see it coming.

Aker said she hadn't heard from Matthew, her only son, for a few days and had a strong feeling that she needed to check in on him. She tracked down Matthew's roommate who unlocked their apartment. That is when Aker found her son shot to death with his own gun.

Deep down, she said, she had wanted to blame Matthew's death on something like drugs or alcohol. ''I would have hoped he was drunk and not in his right mind,'' when he killed himself, she said. But when she got his toxicology results back, she learned he had neither in his system.

Since then, she's had time to reflect.

A few weeks before shooting himself, Aker said, Matthew told her that he didn't think he wanted to live in a world without his dad. After his death, she learned that Matthew had quit going to classes. Despite meeting with him often, Aker didn't really know what was happening with her son.

Allison Gates, 24, Matthew's younger sister, said she has had a hard time dealing with the deaths in her family.

While people will come up and talk to her about losing her dad, they don't talk about her brother's death, she said, because they are afraid to talk about suicide.

Raising awareness

In 1999, the Surgeon General issued a call to action to state health organizations to raise awareness of issues surrounding suicide.

That year, suicide was the eighth leading cause of death among Americans, up from the ninth leading cause of death in 1996, according to a Surgeon General report.

Suicide rates in young people have increased from 1952 to '96. During that time, the suicide rate among adolescents and young adults tripled, according to the report. Even though there has been an overall decline in youth suicides since 1994, from 1980 to '96, rates among those ages 15 to 19 increased by 14 percent and for those ages 10 to 14 the rate increased 100 percent from 1980 to '96.

National research indicates that nearly all suicides have a diagnosable mental or substance-abuse disorder or both, the report said. The most promising prevention tool is early detection and treatment of depression and other psychiatric illnesses, according to the Surgeon General.

With several agencies and people working together to look at Kentucky's specific issues, the state is heading in the right direction, said Sue Eastgard, director of the Washington State Youth Suicide Prevention Program.

Eastgard, who directs Washington's 8-year-old program, is consulting with the Kentucky Suicide Prevention Planning Group to help the organization develop its own strategies.

''We not only have a plan, we have legislative support to implement that plan,'' Eastgard said. ''Kentucky is behind but moving. And they are committed to having something in their state.''

''At this point there is no official suicide prevention effort,'' said Jason Padgett, quality-improvement coordinator for the Impact Plus Program, a state Department for Mental Health program. Padgett facilitates the state's suicide prevention group meetings.

''We're willing to have the meetings if people are willing to come,'' said Jan Ulrich. That, she said, is the missing link for suicide prevention in Kentucky.

''What we don't have right now is the legitimacy from the governor saying this is an officially sanctioned task force,'' Ulrich said.

A few state employees have been given time outside of their normal work schedules to participate in the group, but Kentucky -- like many other states, including Indiana -- has not assigned someone to concentrate only on suicide prevention.

''We would like to wait and see what this work group recommends before making any kind of decision about what next steps to take,'' said Gil Lawson, spokesman for the Kentucky Cabinet for Health Services.

''There is no budget, and until it hits that step it's going to be very difficult to enact a prevention strategy plan without this becoming officially sanctioned without having resources to go with it,'' Ulrich said.

© Stephen Ulrich 2013