Suicide investigations on the rise in Greenville Co., average age decreasing

Original Reporting

(WSPA) – In 2019, 851 South Carolinians died by suicide, an increase from the previous year. Available data from 2020 appears to show another increase.

Greenville County Coroner Parks Evans says his caseload has been growing steadily. “We’ve been busy handling those suicide cases,” Evans said, “they’re going up every year.”

In 2019 and 2020, Evans and his office investigated 84 Greenville County homicides, and 148 suicides. That number will likely increase as they close investigations from late last year.

In those same two years, Spartanburg County investigated another 119 suicide deaths.

Evans says, between accidental overdose and suicide, the most common calls to his office are deaths of despair.

“This is, by far, the worst we’ve seen it and it’s progressively going higher and higher and higher,” Evans said.

A 7 News analysis of suicide investigations found other chilling trends. The average age of suicide victims is getting younger. About 22% of the Greenville and Spartanburg deaths were people age 25 or younger. In both counties, 7 News identified a growing number of children, including two 10-year-old boys in Greenville County and an 11-year-old girl in Spartanburg County.

Jennifer Butler leads the Office of Suicide Prevention at the Department of Mental Health. Butler said, “from 2015 to 2019 we’ve seen an uptick each year in the 10 to 14 and 15 to 19 and then certainly in that 20 age range.” Part of the problem may be a failure to spot the signs of struggle.

While there are exceptions, the coroner said almost all of these cases shows some of the signature signs of self-harm :

  • Feeling hopeless
  • Angry
  • Depressed
  • Increased alcohol or drug use
  • A feeling that nothing matters
  • Dramatic mood swings or reckless behavior

Many suicide victims will specifically say they’re thinking about the act before doing it. Those lives may have been saved with timely interventions of love, listening and hope.

“With suicide, there still is this stigma, this was a choice that some individual made. We know from research on the brain that during a suicidal crisis that individual is not access to the part of the brain that would allow them to think like they normally would,” Butler said.

That stigma is so powerful, even after a person has died, some families will try to hide it, as if suicide was a source of family shame.

“They’ll do anything to get you headed in another direction,” Evans said. “We had a case in the last week or so, it was a drug overdose, and we were investigating the scene and one of my deputy coroners happened to look at a pad and saw some indentation on that pad where something had been written on a sheet of paper and torn off. We brought the pad back and brought that writing up and it was a suicide and that note had been taken.”

The best prevention option may be a phone call. A staff of about 100 volunteers answers the suicide prevention lifeline in Greenville. It’s a national program with staff in every state, although Mental Health America of Greenville County is the only location in South Carolina. That Greenville County location fielded nearly 32,000 calls in 2019 and, during the pandemic, the need is certainly growing.

“We have also seen a dramatic increase in the level of anxiety and stress that our callers are having. So what may have before been a 4 minute phone call or a 7 minute call may now be an hour and a half call,” said Susan Smyre Haire, Director of Community Engagement at MHA Greenville County.

The number at the Suicide Prevention Lifeline, available 24 hours a day every day of every year is: 1-800-273-8255.

Other resources can be found by clicking here.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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