'Pushed to their limit'
Oregonians are more likely to consider suicide than the average American — with nearly one-third across the state reporting that they've considered taking their own lives, according to a new poll.
A DHM Research survey found that 31 percent of Oregonians report having had suicidal thoughts, compared to 21 percent of all Americans.
The grim results align with Oregon's higher-than-average suicide rate. Last year, about 18 per 100,000 Oregonians killed themselves. Nationwide, it was 13 per 100,000 people.
"It's a more common experience in Oregon. They are more likely to know somebody, more likely to talk to somebody," said John Horvick, a vice president for the polling firm. "That ripples out into their relationships with other people."
But the concerning rate of self-harm doesn't mean cries for help go unanswered. In fact, 67 percent of Oregonians said nothing could stop them from trying to prevent a self-inflicted death, compared to 39 percent nationally. Many other respondents nationwide said they might hesitate for fear of doing or saying the wrong thing, or out of fear that nothing they did would make a difference.
Counselors at Lines For Life — which operates a 24-7 crisis center in Southwest Portland as part of the National Suicide Prevention Hotline (800-273-8255) — have been found to de-escalate more than 95 percent of all incoming calls without needing to contact first responders.
Lines For Life chief executive Dwight Holton says it's crucial that Oregonians keep talking, as honest talk can shatter the barriers that prevent people from seeking help. "Human connection is what matters," he said. "It's OK to not feel great, but what we know is: reach out for help, because help works."
Oregon's high rate of suicides may be helping to break down the stigma as well. Fifty-four percent of the survey respondents say they've talked openly about suicide, in contrast to 42 percent nationwide.
Here are the other key takeaways from the poll:
• 70 percent of Oregonians have spent time worrying about a friend or family member's mental state. The national average is 33 percent.
• About 34 percent of Oregonians know someone who has survived a suicide attempt, as opposed to 22 percent nationally.
• Only 9 percent of state residents report no familiarity with suicidal thoughts or actions in their lives, compared to 28 percent of all Americans.
In follow-up interviews with the Pamplin Media Group, several poll respondents said they were not surprised to learn Oregonians are comfortable talking about suicide.
"I don't consider it to be a dark topic," said one participant, a Beaverton resident named Danny. "Someone who (attempts) suicide is someone who has been pushed to their limit. They couldn't think of any other way, and if they didn't seek out others to help them, then that's the course they chose."
Another respondent, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, highlighted the burden for those battling mental health issues in the LGBTQ community, especially for those in their teenage years.
"It's pretty lonely," said the Portland resident, who described feeling ostracized by friends after coming out as transgender. "There's this vast difference in outcomes, depending on whether a transgender person has a team of emotional support."
Holton said his organization receives many calls from people who have been "other-ized" due to their sexual or gender identity, with calls flowing particularly to the YouthLine (877-969-8491). That said, Holton notes that the people most likely to kill themselves are older white men.
"This challenge knows no racial, gender or other traditional boundaries. Suicide comes home to everybody," he said. "The most important thing we can do is make sure people know it's OK to reach out for help."
COLLABORATIVE EFFORT SHINES LIGHT ON SUICIDE
In April, newsrooms across the state are highlighting the public health crisis of death by suicide in Oregon. The goal of this unprecedented collaboration is not only to put a spotlight on a problem that claimed the lives of more than 800 people last year, but also to examine research into how prevention can and does work and offer our readers, listeners and viewers resources to help if they — or those they know — are in crisis.
Most of the work of "Breaking the Silence" will be published and broadcast April 7 to 14. The participating media outlets are using a common set of data to ensure consistency, and we have loosely coordinated our coverage in an effort to avoid duplication and better amplify all of our work.
When possible, we will promote one another's stories, but all of them can be found on breakingthesilenceor.com.
One reason journalists long have shied away from reporting on individual suicides, except in rare circumstances, is the worry that attention to suicides might cause a "contagion effect" or cause harm to surviving friends and family members.
This collaborative reporting project stemmed from a conversation about media coverage of suicide, facilitated by Lines for Life, a regional nonprofit focused on suicide prevention. The weeklong project recognizes that our silence, while well-intended, is not serving anyone. We can and should do better at addressing this, just as we would any public health emergency.
The journalism of each newsroom has been independent, guided by local editors and best suited for their local communities. Our hope, however, is that by working collaboratively and promoting one another's work, this group effort will allow us to shine a brighter light on this problem.
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 800-273-8255
Lines for Life
The DHM online poll surveyed 309 Oregonians between Feb. 13 and Feb. 22. The margin of error is 5.6 percent. DHM conducted the survey, at no cost, for media organizations participating in "Breaking the Silence," a collaborative initiative to draw awareness to the issue of suicide in Oregon.