The ancient Greek warrior Ajax prepares his suicide. Public domain image reproducing a black-figure amphora depiction by Exekias (530-525 BC).
By SEAN BATURA
As many people killed themselves in San Marcos in May and June this year as in 2008 and 2009 combined.
The number of suicides in San Marcos in May and June totaled five, which is the total number so far for 2010. The San Marcos Police Department (SMPD) said four other people have survived attempts to take their own lives between June 25 and July 6 of this year.
In 2009, only one person in San Marcos committed suicide, while in 2008, the number came to four.
The suicide count for May and June this year does not count San Marcos resident Christopher Noffsinger, who was struck and killed by a Union Pacific (UP) train on April 3. Local law enforcement authorities have not determined if Noffsinger’s death is to be ruled a suicide.
According to UP spokesperson Raquel Espinoza-Williams, the train’s conductor said he sounded the vehicle’s horn repeatedly and Noffsinger would not move from the railroad tracks. Espinoza-Williams said UP’s investigation is ongoing, and she declined to comment further about the incident.
Noffsinger was laying on the train tracks at the time of his death, according to a report issued by the Federal Rail Administration (FRA). FRA listed “human factor” as Noffsinger’s cause of death, and gives his age as 30. The incident that involved Noffsinger’s death does not fall within the jurisdiction of SMPD.
FRA Senior Public Affairs Specialist Warren Flatau said his agency does not currently require railroad entities to submit reports of suicides. Flatau said FRA is in the course of revising its reporting requirements to include suicides as part of an ongoing research program. Suicide accounts for 30 to 50 percent of “trespasser-related serious injuries/fatalities” on railways, according to an FRA report.
SMPD Commander Chase Stapp said the five suicides in May and June do not appear to be related. Stapp said “formalities” such as autopsies are preventing the cases from being closed, though preliminary police incident reports classify the deaths as suicides. Stapp said he anticipates the deaths to be ruled as suicides upon closure of the investigations. Stapp said investigators have not discovered anything unusual about the suicides aside from there being more than the usual number of them in May and June.
Albert Biegel, 47 years old, hanged himself at 814 Perkins Street on May 10. James McSwain, 55, killed himself with a handgun on May 20 at 1440 Highland Drive. Celeste Kidd, 27, hanged herself on June 9 in a motel room at 1433 North Interstate 35. William Coughlin, 80, took his own life on June 14 by jumping from a third story window at 2600 Hunter Road. Carl Mann, 51, killed himself on June 18 with a handgun at 902 Sycamore Street.
There have been an average of about 1.08 suicides per month in San Marcos since 2001. Since Jan. 1, 2001, according to SMPD records, 106 persons have died by suicide.
The police records indicate a substantial downward trend in suicides within San Marcos since 2001, when 29 persons took their own lives within the city. In 2002, the number fell slightly to 26, followed by 18 in 2003, 10 in 2004, four in 2005, four in 2006, five in 2007, four in 2008 and one in 2009.
SMPD Records Specialist Melissa Bretzke said information before 2001 is more difficult to get because her department began using a computer system in 2001. Stapp said assessing five-year periods is sufficient to discern criminal-justice related trends.
SMPD Chief Howard Williams said he was not on the police force in 2001 and 2002 and cannot say why there were more suicides in those years than in all successive years combined. Retired SMPD Sergeant Rodney van Oudekerke said he was a patrol officer during 2001 and 2002. van Oudekerke said he does not know why there were more suicides during 2001 and 2002 than in successive years.
Texas Department of State Health Services consultant Merily Keller expressed alarm at the number of recent suicides in San Marcos and cautioned the media to avoid reporting suicide-related incidents in a sensationalized manner.
“If you have a suicide cluster going on, what the (news) article says is crucial,” Keller said. “Because there has been data where — that has been substantiated — (that indicates) if the article is sensational, you can end up adding to the suicide clusters.”
Blanca Sanchez-Navarro, a supervising counselor with the Texas State University Counseling Center, said she does not know why there were more suicides in 2001 and 2002 than all successive years.
“There’s so many extraneous variables in something like that,” Sanchez-Navarro said. “You’re looking at economic issues, you’re looking at reporting issues … so, there’s really not a way for me to guess about that clustering.”
Though Sanchez-Navarro said it would be extremely difficult to explain the seemingly high amount of suicides in 2001 and 2002, she said studying the matter further may be beneficial.
“What was going on in those years?” Sanchez-Navarro said. “Was it because it was being reported differently? Was it because something happened in our community at that time? Who knows? Was there some type of tragedy that occurred? Was a national tragedy going on in those years? Or were they unrelated?… If there were some quantifiable reason in a particular season or a particular year, that certain things happened, and it was under our control, I think our society would do something about it, I would imagine.”
Making the suicide totals in San Marcos from 2001 and 2002 more stunning is that San Marcos was a much smaller city, by official measures, in those years. The 2000 U.S. Census put the San Marcos population at 34,733. The U.S. Census Bureau’s estimate for San Marcos as of June 1, 2009, was 53,205.
Across Texas from 2001 through 2007, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services (TDSH), the state low in suicides was 2,214 in 2001 and the peak was 2,470 in 2007.
Suicide rates nationally decreased from 1993 to 1999 and began increasing in 2000, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Suicide rates nationwide decreased in 2002, increased in 2003, remained flat in 2004, and increased in 2005, according to the CDC.
Though economic factors may not sufficiently explain suicide trends, data from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s (USDC) Bureau of Economic Analysis indicate that 2001-03 were relatively hard economic times in Hays County. A technology bubble fueled by venture capital investment that drove Austin growth in the 1990s began to break at the end of 2000.
During the period from 1995 to 2008, total personal income in Hays County grew at its lowest rate between 2001 and 2003, from $2,605,506,000 in 2001 to $2,664,325,000 in 2002 to $2,766,577,000 in 2003, according to the USDC statistics. The USDC also said that during the same period, job growth in Hays County grew at its slowest rate between 1999 and 2000, from 48,162 jobs in 1999 to 49,608 jobs in 2000.
Across Texas during the same period, according to USDC statistics, wage and salary employment in Texas decreased twice, from 9,927,841 jobs in 2001 to 9,861,004 jobs in 2002, and then to 9,818,819 jobs in 2003. Also, per capita personal income in Texas increased every year between 1995 and 2008 with once exception: per capita personal decreased from $29,167 in 2001 to $28,938 in 2002. USDC anticipates data will show that per capita personal income decreased from $37,809 in 2008 to $36,484 in 2009. During the 1995 to 2008 period, total personal income in Texas grew at its slowest rate between 2000 and 2003, and USDC anticipates data will show that personal income decreased from $918,921,246,000 in 2008 to $904,166,473,000 in 2009.
It is possible that more suicides have occurred than have been reported to SMPD and other entities.
“Sometimes deaths are reported as suicides and sometimes they’re not,” Sanchez-Navarro said. “Sometimes it is a suicide and it’s known, but the family wishes for it not to be reported as a suicide. Other times, it’s not really known whether that was a suicide or not. It’s a myth that all suicides leave notes or leave causes.”
The most suicides during any single calendar month in San Marcos occurred in February 2001 (seven suicides), followed by October 2002 (six) and November 2002 (four). Since 2001, there were 12 calendar months each in which three people killed themselves.
Most suicides since 2001 occurred in February months (17 suicides), followed by May (13) and March (11) months. Ten suicides occurred in October months, nine in November and June months, and eight in July and August months since 2001. Seven people killed themselves in September months and six in January months since 2001. Five people died by suicide in April months and three in December months since 2001.
Texas’ suicide rate ranks 14th among the 50 states and 10th in instances of depression, according to Mental Health America, formerly the National Mental Health Association.
“More often than not, people who die by suicide have been suffering from a mental illness,” Sanchez-Navarro said.
Sanchez-Navarro said friends of people who have suicidal thoughts can sometimes offer adequate support if they are aware of the situation and willing to help. Sanchez-Navarro said friends and family should not feel as if they have to solve all of a depressed person’s problems, but can offer hope. Sanchez-Navarro cautioned against using mood-altering substances such as alcohol as a way of coping with problems.
“We have to have courage to check in with people when we’re worried about them,” Sanchez-Navarro said. “Offering hope is a huge help in this situation. Guiding that person to professional help if they need it is crucial.”Email | Print