Arizona, Gila County Rank High For Suicides

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A 33-year-old Payson man was discovered shot to death in his truck Tuesday morning.

The cause appears to be suicide, police said.

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Payson police officer John Huss places crime scene tape in front of a Payson home Tuesday morning after a suspected suicide -- the second in recent weeks.

Preliminary reports indicate that the man was suffering from depression and took his own life, with a gunshot wound to the head.

"We're early on in the investigation, so we're careful not to make a determination," said Payson Police Commander Don Engler. "But it does appear to be a suicide."

Suicide is a mental-health epidemic, especially among men: Males are four times more likely to commit suicide than women, according to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.

The Centers for Disease Control ranked Arizona No. 6 in the nation for suicides; Arizona Department of Health Services (AZDHS) included Gila County as one of top-five, most-suicidal counties in the state.

In 2003, AZDHS documented 86 suicides in the 15 to 24 age group; that number increased to 134 among 24- to 35-year-olds, and then nearly doubled to 228 for those 55 and older. Sixty percent of suicides are carried out with a firearm.

"Research says that women are more concerned with how they look so they are more prone to use pills, gas, etc. rather than firearms," said Darlene Duncan, Southwest Behavioral Health/Rim Guidance prevention and community liaison. "However, guns are the No. 1 tool used to commit suicide. Guns are usually a man's tool."

Alfred Stratton called his dad one December evening in 2005. "Help me, help me. Save me," the 20-year-old pleaded. And then the phone went dead.

His father rushed to find him. Four minutes later, it was too late. Alfred died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound four days before Christmas.

"He was bright and charismatic," his grandmother, Payson resident Georgia Stratton said. "He had a great personality. More than 400 people showed up at his funeral."

Nancy Holcombe knew her son Rob, a former Payson resident, felt frustration between the discomfort of change, and the awe of fresh possibilities.

"Rob was at a point where he was excited about the changes," Holcombe said. "He was not only having to face the changes in his own life, but dealing with external pressures. My heart breaks for the agony he must have been suffering."

Rob, facing a twenty-something transition -- still living in an apartment, and working at the same job he'd had since college, but ready to move to the next level: different career prospects, and even home of his own.

Rob left an impromptu note in an open document on his computer.

"He didn't give a reason," Nancy said. "He said his heart wasn't strong enough. Rob was a caregiver, and we all just weighed him down with our problems."

Early one summer morning in 2005 Rob Holcombe shot himself. He was 28.

Payson psychologist Ron Peterson finds that depression -- diagnosed and undiagnosed -- in tandem with the pressures of modern living, ferment deep feelings of despair.

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Payson police consult on how best to help a man threatening suicide with a gun in a residential neighborhood last June.

"There's such social turmoil," said Peterson. "Everybody says, ‘Well, why?' Expectations get beyond where you can handle things. You're dating the wrong person; you should be going in a different place professionally. That creates a mixture for suicide."

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIH) summarized the reasons for suicide. Depressive disorders top the list of motivations; undiagnosed depression is the No. 1 cause of suicide, reported the Centers for Disease Control.

Substance abuse; family history of depression and suicide; and loss of a job or partner all contribute to the template of a suicidal person.

"Depression is an emotional disease," Peterson said. "It's one where you feel like you're being crushed and you just don't want to move."

The CDC chronicled the realities of mental illness nationwide: In any given year, 19 million American adults suffer from depression. Many others -- who are either afraid to ask for help or shamed by family and friends -- continue to live in dark silence.

Youth, the elderly and Native Americans are particularly vulnerable to isolation, depression and suicide.

"Arizona has a high population of elderly and Native American men," Duncan said. "Elderly get depressed because they're losing functionality; a lot of Native American men are alcoholics."

Suicide is the second most-common killer of American Indian men between the ages of 15 and 34, according to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, and 770 percent more likely to die of alcoholism than the general U.S. population, according to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

"A lot of people treat depression with a drink. That's a depressant and it makes matters worse," Duncan said.

Meanwhile, as the summer of love changes to the winter of aging, increasing numbers of hippies and baby boomers enter the golden years.

Senior citizens nationwide total 35 million. The NIH detailed the mortality statistics of this group: 7 million have some form of depression, 6.3 million others commit suicide.

"There are circumstances where they just feel totally out of control," Peterson said. "When a partner dies, the other person feels like, ‘There's no point in being here.'"

Two weeks ago, the Payson Police Department responded to another suicide call. Sgt. Tom Tieman said officers found a man in his 70s, suspected of having an alcohol dependency, dead.

The police department responded to 38 threats, 26 attempts and three completions in 2005.

"Half of the suicide calls, maybe more, are older people," said Tieman. "Most of these cases involve mental illness, depression. Some of them are being treated for it, some aren't."

At the same time, children and adolescents struggle with the pain and pressures of growing up.

"Teens are so impulsive," said Abigail Pederson, intervention specialist. "High school is a hard time. Peers are critical and parents are often critical too."

Suicide is the third-leading cause of death among 15- to 24-year-olds, reported the NIH. In 2004, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration released a study of adolescent-psychological trends: 3.5 million youths between 12 and 17 suffer from depression; 712,000 attempted suicide.

"The unfortunate part is teens give off pretty clear signs," said Pederson. "Cutting, major changes in sleeping and eating, preoccupation with death -- giving away prized possessions is a huge tip off."

Alfred Stratton hadn't been himself since a failed suicide attempt in May. Georgia Stratton noticed the changes in her grandson.

"I think it opened a whole can of worms," Georgia said. "He said he struggled with depression starting in junior high. He was hurting a lot.

"I think he was planning it to a certain extent. After the funeral some of his friends told me about a time they were watching ‘The Passion of Christ.' (Alfred) pointed at Jesus and said, ‘See him. I'm going to be with him.'"

In spite of the warning signs, Pederson said navigating the psychology of a suicidal friend or family member is difficult.

"It's a very touchy subject because nobody wants to think their loved one wants to die," Pederson said. "For someone who is suicidal, once they've figured out their plan, it almost relieves some of the burden, and you might see somebody totally happy."

Nancy Holcombe, her husband Don, and sons Ken and Rob spent the weekend before his death together in Payson.

"He was happy about stuff, and he seemed to have a good balance," Holcombe said. "Someone had suggested that his trip home was a goodbye trip. But I don't believe it. He had plans for the future. Something happened in those last days that overpowered all the hopes he had."

Depression is a treatable mental illness. Darlene Duncan said medication, talk therapy and family support help a troubled loved one walk through their despair.

"All of mental illness has a stigma," Duncan said. "It's very common to feel depressed and want to kill yourself. Talk about it. Don't stop taking antidepressants. People seem to be afraid to ask for help if they are hurting. That's when it's time to call us."

Southwest Behavioral Health/ Rim Guidance maintains a 24-hour helpline, (928) 474-3303. Parents concerned about their teenagers can call Abigail Pederson at (928) 595-2943. If you're worried about someone's safety, the Payson Police Department is always there. Call 911 in an emergency or (928) 474-5177, ext. 309 for dispatch.

Signs of depression

  • Persistent sad, anxious or "empty" mood
  • Feelings of hopelessness, pessimism
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, helplessness
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities that were once enjoyed, including sex
  • Decreased energy, fatigue, being "slowed down"
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering, making decisions
  • Trouble sleeping, early- morning awakening, or oversleeping
  • Appetite and/or weight changes
  • Thoughts of death or suicide, or suicide attempts
  • Restlessness, irritability
  • Persistent physical symptoms, such as headaches, digestive disorders, and chronic pain that do not respond to routine treatment

Source: National Institute of Mental Health

Signs of suicide

Acronym for suicide warning signs: IS PATH WARM

I = Ideation

S = Substance Abuse

P = Purposelessness

A = Anxiety

T = Trapped

H = Hopelessness

W = Withdrawal

A = Anger

R = Recklessness

M = Mood Changes

Source: American Association of Suicidology

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