Clackamas County has trained nearly all health employees in mental health first aid, plans to screen clients at clinics for risk.

Clackamas County commissioners heard some grim statistics, but also some hopeful notes, as they proclaimed National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month.

Clackamas County leads the three Portland metropolitan area counties in rates of suicide per 100,000 population, even though the other counties have more people.

Newly released figures by the Oregon Health Authority for 2016 showed the county with 63 deaths for a rate of 15.6 per 100,000, greater than Multnomah County with 120 deaths at 15.2 and Washington County with 82 deaths at 14.1.

Oregon's 2016 suicide rate was 18.9 per 100,000. In 2015, it was 17.8, greater than the national rate of 13.26, which was a 30-year high.

Galli Murray, the county's coordinator for youth suicide prevention, said Oregon has exceeded the national average for three decades.

"It has nothing to do with the weather," she said.

During that same 30-year period, she said, death rates from heart disease, stroke and AIDS have gone down — but not for suicide. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death nationally, and eighth in Oregon. For ages 10-14 in Oregon, it ranks third — and for ages 15-34, it ranks second only to car crashes.

The median age of those who die of suicide — half are older and half are younger — is about 50.

"Despite our efforts, we still have a tremendous amount of work to do," Murray said. "But history shows that action by organizations does make a huge difference."

Fulfilling a pledge by Richard Swift, director of the county's Health, Housing and Human Services Department, virtually all (530 of 586) employees have been certified in mental health first aid. Murray said every client in county walk-in clinics will be screened for risk of suicide.

Board Chairman Jim Bernard, who himself underwent the same training, said that awareness has spread to medical providers who ask relevant questions of their own patients. Bernard said he knew of two people who had taken their own lives.

"Attempting to reduce suicide by people in our care to zero may seem absolutely scary or impossible," Murray said. "But what other number could we strive for? Zero is the only acceptable number."

Asked by Commissioner Paul Savas what the county can do, Murray said public attention should focus on suicide prevention in a manner similar to other leading causes of death that have declined.

"These rates (for other causes) did not come down on their own. They went down because of intentional, strategic work," she said.

"We have to talk about it… Talking about it creates the space that you feel you are not alone."

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention plans an Out of the Darkness fundraising walk Oct. 7 starting at Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Portland. Murray said employees of the county health agency will take part.

Oregon recorded 581 suicides by men and 190 by women in 2016 for rates of 28.9 and 9.2, so men are more than three times likely than women to die. In more than half of all suicides in Oregon, firearms are involved.

The 2017 Legislature passed a bill (SB 719) that allows family members or police to petition for a court order — good for one year — to take away firearms from individuals deemed at risk of harming themselves or others. There is an effort to force a statewide vote on it, but opponents will have to submit about 60,000 valid signatures by Oct. 5 to qualify it for a 2018 ballot.

In response to another question by Savas, Murray said there is no one reason why people take their own lives.

"We know that for somebody who experiences depression, that is a huge risk factor for suicide. We know that someone who is experiencing poverty, it's a risk factor for suicide," she said. "But each in isolation does not make someone at risk for suicide. All of those things combined make someone at risk of suicide."

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How to get help

Clackamas County Crisis Line: (503) 655-8585

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: (800) 273-8255

Both lines are staffed 24 hours daily, seven days a week.

Riverstone Center

Open 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday through Friday. 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

At the Ross Center, near Clackamas Town Center, 11211 SE 82nd Ave., Suite O, Happy Valley

Adds hotline phone numbers and location of mental health center.

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