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Lawmakers Address Plan To Fight Rising Number Of Suicides

February 7, 2019

Oregon lawmakers debated a bill on Thursday that would create a new position in the Oregon Health Authority dedicated to reducing adult suicides, a problem that plagues the state.  

House Bill 2667 would require the authority to develop a statewide plan to combat suicide rates among adults, and it would add resources to address suicides among the most vulnerable, including veterans, rural Oregonians, Native Americans and adults with mental illness.

Its chief sponsor, Rep. Alissa Keny-Guyer, D-Portland, said it was time to address suicides among older Oregonians, who account for the majority of suicides in the state. Data from the health authority show that suicide rates are highest in adults aged 85 or older, with rates rapidly increasing in those aged 45 to 64.

Health authority Director Pat Allen said the bill would align with priorities in Gov. Kate Brown’s budget, which allocates $500,000 to suicide prevention. Allen said that money would almost entirely go to staffing the position the bill would create.

David Westbrook, chief operating officer of Lines For Life, a nonprofit dedicated to preventing substance abuse and suicide, said the bill represents the first adult-based approach to suicide since 2006 when the Legislature passed the Oregon Older Adult Suicide Prevention Plan directed at seniors. Testifying at the bill’s public hearing, Westbrook said a plan geared to adults is necessary because most suicides occur by far in people older than 25.

“We don’t hear about it, that’s part of the problem,” he said. “We have, at least in the adult population, ignored it for too long.”

Nobody testified against the bill.

In 2014, the Legislature passed the Youth Suicide Intervention and Prevention Plan, which was focused on residents aged 10 to 24. Keny-Guyer was one of the key lawmakers backing that program. The new position would be geared for adults over 24 years old.

Suicide rates dropped in Oregon between 1990 and 2010, but they’ve grown steadily in the past eight years, giving Oregon one of the highest rates in the country --  with nearly 18 suicides per 100,000 people. That’s more than 40 percent higher than the national average.

The rate of suicides has increased since 2000, according to a 2015 suicide report by the health authority that studied data from 2003 through 2012. The study looked at demographics, personal and medical history and other factors surrounding suicide rates. It found an increase since 2011 in suicide rates among adolescents aged 10 through 17 and a rise of more than 50 percent in rates among adults 45- to 64-years-old between 2000 and  2012.

While veterans make up less than 9 percent of the population in Oregon, they account for nearly a quarter of the state’s suicides. Suicide is the leading cause of death for veterans under 45, with men accounting for 97 percent of the deaths.

Rural Oregonians are much more likely to commit suicide compared with their counterparts in the Portland metro area. For several counties in eastern and southern Oregon, suicide rates between 2003 and 2012 were more than double the rates in Washington, Multnomah and Clackamas counties.

The study also shows that mental health is an important factor in suicide. About 70 percent of people who committed suicide in the study had been diagnosed with a mental disorder.

This story has been corrected to clarify testimony by David Westbrook. 

Have a tip about health care policy or the Legislature? You can reach Alex Visser at [email protected].