Sunday | November 19, 2017
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Suicide: A growing problem in Hawaii

Through stories, tears and candlelight, Prevent Suicide West Hawaii Task Force wants residents to remember loved ones lost to suicide it seeks to raise awareness and prompt change on this growing problem.

The all-volunteer, 15-member group is hosting its first candlelight vigil at 6 p.m. Sept. 14 on the lawn of St. Michael the Archangel Church in Kailua-Kona in conjunction with National Suicide Awareness Week, Sept. 9 to 15.

“Suicide touches the lives of not only the person lost, but the dozens of others — family, friends, coworkers and neighbors — left to grieve in the wake of an avoidable death,” said Nancy Sallee, task force chairwoman and Orchid Island Psychotherapy marriage therapist. “This kind of tragedy is a unique pain that’s hard to understand. It leaves you with a raw form of grief and drives you to ask all the what ifs to try to make sense of something so senseless. It’s a devastating death that’s hard to recover from alone, and because of the myths and stigma, there’s silence all around it. This candlelight vigil is for acknowledging, understanding, solace, support and recovery.”

Those who want to share stories or photos may do so. Counselors will be at the event to talk with people individually, if needed. The task force’s motto is “no shame, no blame,” she added.

“Suicides are increasing in Hawaii. Within the past few months, I know of several West Hawaii suicides. As a clinician in a private practice, I hear eight to 10 people a week say they think about or have attempted suicide,” Sallee said. “For several years, completed suicides were occurring in Hawaii about every three days, now the rate in the state has jumped to every one to two days.”

Epidemiologist Dan Galanis said the state Department of Health Injury Prevention and Control Program only has data on suicides through last year. A draft chapter on suicides and attempts from the Injury Prevention and Control Program’s “Injuries in Hawaii” report noted an increasing trend from 2007-11. The highest suicide total for which data is available was 195 in 2010. Of those, 115 were on Oahu, 34 on Maui, 29 on Hawaii Island and 17 on Kauai.

More than half, or 58 percent, of victims from 2007-11 were Oahu residents, most of whom had a documented history of mental illness, according to autopsy records. However, Oahu’s fatality rate — 57.5 suicides per 10,000 residents — was significantly lower than the neighbor islands’ rates, the report stated.

Hawaii County had the highest fatality rate — 98.6 per 100,000 residents — over the past five years. Islandwide, there were 19 suicides in 2007, 28 in 2008, 36 in 2009, 29 in 2010 and 38 in 2011, the report stated.

Sallee said the number of suicides is likely higher, uncounted in the statistics because those deaths are possibly attributed to a motor vehicle accident, drug overdose, poisoning, falling or other accidental cause.

The report also indicates an increasing trend in people being treated in emergency departments for nonfatal, self-inflicted injuries annually. Hawaii Island and Kauai counties had significantly higher rates of such injuries than Honolulu and Maui counties. However, Oahu had the most, with 525 patients, followed by Hawaii Island’s 166, Maui’s 74 and Kauai’s 61. More than half, or 58 percent, were under 35 and residents 15 to 19 years old had the highest rates of hospitalizations, especially emergency department visits.

Overall, the age of suicide victims was widely distributed in Hawaii, although 95 percent were 19 or older. The highest fatality rates were for those 45 to 54 and 85 and older. Men outnumbered women in suicide by three to one. Nearly half, or 49 percent, of the victims hanged or suffocated themselves, the report stated.

Experts ascribe reasons for suicide to pressures at home, school or work, financial worries, relationship losses, domestic violence, alcohol and drug use, severe depression and other mental health issues. Sallee said the economy, plagued by high unemployment rates, could have caused some uptick because two big risk factors are financial loss and relationship problems.

Suicide needs to be a regular topic of conversation in the community and should start as early as in fourth and fifth grade, where suicide attempts nationwide are reportedly growing, Sallee said. It should include discussion of how to recognize the signs, intervene, educate, prevent and use available resources. The task force would like to do presentations on suicide prevention at schools, specifically high schools; those interested can email Sallee at

A biennial survey released earlier this summer found Hawaii had the second-highest national percentage of youth, 15 percent, who reported making a suicide plan. The 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Survey is part of a national initiative conducted every two years, given to 1,644 public school students in sixth to 12th grade. The only survey monitoring youth risk behaviors on a broad scale, it is an important tool for identifying focus areas for prevention and treatment efforts.

The group also launched a website,, Sallee said.