DOWNTOWN — The number of people who have taken their own lives in Santa Monica so far this year has reached a level not seen in recent years, leaving some to wonder if the economic downturn is responsible.

Since the beginning of the year, there have been 20 suicide attempts within the city, 10 of which have been fatal, according to records released by the Santa Monica Police Department.

If an autopsy reveals that a woman found Wednesday morning just north of the Santa Monica Pier committed suicide, that number will rise to 11, well over the average, which is eight a year, said SMPD Sgt. Jay Trisler.

In 2008, there were nine fatalities and 15 attempts.

SMPD Chief Tim Jackman grew concerned when he saw the numbers and felt releasing the information would raise awareness so that families could be more cognizant of any changes in a loved one’s behavior, as well as learn about services available in the area.

“Just like any type of trend that we see, the chief wants the public to be made aware of it so that they can prevent them and identify the warnings signs,” Trisler, the SMPD spokesman, said in an interview last week with the Daily Press. “By releasing this information we’re hoping to assist families in having that open dialogue and recognize that there is help out there.”

While national statistics show that men take their own lives at a rate four times that of females, in Santa Monica that has not been the case. Of the 10 confirmed cases of suicide in 2009, seven involved women. Seven of the victims have been Caucasian, two Hispanic, and one Asian, according to police reports.

Three used a firearm, one overdosed on drugs, three died by hanging, two by jumping from a tall structure, and one by a cut to the wrist or neck.

The victims ranged in ages, from the 20s to 70-plus. The oldest was 91.

In 2006, the latest year for which national statistics are available, there were 33,300 suicides in the U.S., or one suicide every 15.8 minutes, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Recent research has shown that suicide is on the rise nationally, particularly amongst middle-aged white women. A team at John Hopkins University in Baltimore found that the overall suicide rate rose .7 percent between 1999 and 2005, with the rate for white men rising 2.7 percent and for middle-aged women, 3.9 percent.

While there are no official statistics for 2007 or 2008, mental health providers believe the economic downturn could be responsible for the increase in calls suicide hotlines have received in the last few months.

Calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline jumped 36 percent from 2007 to 2008, totaling 545,000 last year, said director John Draper. But callers were increasing before the economic collapse, and about half of the added calls in 2008 came from taking over a veterans suicide line, Draper said.

Historically, suicide rates have shown no clear association with times of economic recession, although suicide rates did increase slightly during the years of the Great Depression, according to the American Association of Suicidology.

There is a clear and direct relationship between rates of unemployment and suicide, the association said, as the feeling of hopelessness intensifies.

The peak rate of suicide in 1933 occurred one year after the total U.S. unemployment rate reached 25 percent of the labor force. Unemployed individuals have between two and four times the suicide rate of those employed.

Trisler said those who have committed suicide did so because of problems with family and friends or a significant other. One was terminally ill while another reported being out of work.

Dr. Stephen Sideroff, a clinical psychologist with the Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center and clinical director of the Moonview Sanctuary, a treatment center in Santa Monica, said he has seen an increase in the number of people seeking help and believes the economic recession is partly responsible.

“They may not identify finances as the main reason, but what you get is a chain of events where there is more stress, fear and anxiety and this trains a person’s coping abilities so that people who are just managing to hang on will no longer be able to manage,” Sideroff said. “People who have been able to distract themselves by doing something that costs money may not be able to afford that outlet any longer.

“Stress and financial difficulties lead to greater conflict.”

There are warning signs that loved ones should be on the lookout for. If someone starts to withdraw from society and increase alcohol or drug use, seek help immediately, said Dr. Jeanette Raymond, a psychologist in Brentwood who specializes in managing emotions.

“Most people believe that suicide happens when a person just wants to give up or doesn’t care anymore, but that isn’t necessarily true,” Raymond said. “People who attempt suicide, but don’t succeed, that is the motivation, to draw attention to themselves. Those who are serious do it as a way of expressing their power over their own life. They may feel that have lost control of their future because of the economy or some outside forces and they use suicide as a statement that they are in charge.

“It’s the ultimate act of control.”

There are numerous hotlines people can call if contemplating suicide. There are also clinics available for those who are in need of counseling, and that includes the family members of someone who is suicidal. The Didi Hirsch Suicide Prevention Center in Culver City is a trusted source for help, becoming the first center in the country to provide a 24-hour suicide prevention crisis line and use community volunteers to field calls.

“They key is to say in contact with the person,” Sideroff said. “You need to replace those feelings of hopelessness, and help them see their mind is playing tricks on them.

“You have to get them to understand that suicidal thoughts are temporary, but suicide is permanent.”

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