There’s an epidemic unfolding in the Wichita area, local officials say, but many people are reluctant to talk about it.
There were 96 suicides in Sedgwick County last year, the highest number since the Sedgwick County Suicide Prevention Coalition began tracking the numbers in 2001, said Nicole Klaus, a psychologist and associate professor at the University of Kansas School of Medicine-Wichita.
The numbers have climbed sharply in recent years, and experts say they don't have an explanation.
"It’s the responsibility of the whole community to be addressing this epidemic of suicide," Klaus said
Suicide pace accelerating
In Wichita, there were 64 suicides in 2017, Wichita police say, and there have been 27 through mid-April so far this year — a pace that could dwarf the totals of previous years.
Suicides in all of Sedgwick County jumped from 68 in 2015 to 91 in 2016, according to data produced through a collaboration with the Sedgwick County Division of Health and the Regional Forensic Science Center.
"We’re hoping to be able to look at the death records more closely and see if we can identify any patterns that help explain what's happening," Klaus said. "We're seeing more deaths and more suicide attempts than ever before In the local community. We need to do something about it."
People who have committed suicide in and around the Wichita area have been as young as 11 and as old as retirees, local officials say.
Rural suicides are on the rise as well.
"As farmers and ranchers retire, they lose their identity and social connection," Bailey Blair, a social worker and founding board member of StopSuicideICT, a new local nonprofit organization, said via social media.. "Isolation is deadly."
Those struggling with depression can feel alone even in a crowded room, Blair said. Reducing that sense of isolation will be one of the primary goals of Stop Suicide ICT, which will make its public debut at the Out of the Darkness walk at Wichita State University on April 28.
The walk, which is "a time to acknowledge the ways in which suicide and mental illness have affected our lives and our loved ones," is sponsored by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
A health 'crisis'
With local suicides and suicide attempts on the rise in recent years, a group of local social workers and others who work in suicide prevention decided local efforts needed to be stronger.
That led to the creation of StopSuicideICT, whose mission is to increase public awareness about suicides and those at risk.
"It's absolutely a public health crisis," Blair said.
Sedgwick County's suicide rates per 100,000 people are significantly higher than the national average, according to the coalition. Local officials have seen the rate for those between the ages of 25 and 34 jump from 9 per 100,00 people in 2009 to 35 per 100,000 in 2016.
Nearly 80 percent of those who committed suicide in 2016 were male, data showed.
There are abundant resources available locally for those whose loved ones have contemplated, attempted or committed suicide. But many people don't know about them, Blair said.
People aren't willing to acknowledge the crisis until they're affected, those who have been touched by suicide said.
"At those walks, I always see new faces — and that means another loss," said Brenda Coldiron Dixon, whose son Jared took his life five years ago at the age of 25.
Along with the suicide walk at Wichita State on Saturday, the organization plans to take part in the Support Local Law Enforcement parade on May 12. A public information session is being planned to help people recognize warning signs of someone contemplating suicide and what to do when they see them.
Klaus, a founding member of StopSuicideICT, said she hopes to use social media to raise awareness about suicide prevention in much the same way the #metoo movement sparked conversations about the prevalence of sexual assault.
The organization has a Facebook page and Twitter account, @stopsuicideict.
'Would've, could've, should've'
Bob Polk and Esther Granados aren’t afraid to talk about suicide. They both lost loved ones three years ago.
At 25, Matthew Polk had already become a general manager of restaurants in Wichita and had been chosen to run a new restaurant on the Plaza in Kansas City. But in October 2015, he hanged himself in the garage of his parents' home.
The first inkling Esther Granados had that her younger brother Vincent was struggling was when he sent a Snapchat in which he was drinking alone late at night.
"I was in and out of the sleep stage, but I remember thinking, 'Oh, that's not good — I need to reach out to him,'" Granados said.
She never got the chance: A few hours later, on the second day of September 2015, Vicente "Boy" Granados took his life using a gun. He was 22.
After more than two years, Polk said he still reflects on the "would've, could've, should've" surrounding his son's death.
"I swallow that pill every day I walk in that garage," he said.
A month before he killed himself, Matthew Polk confided to his father that if the restaurant job in Kansas City didn't work out he'd kill himself.
Polk told his son not to be so hard on himself, that his friends would stay his friends no matter what happened. His son's spirits seemed to improve, he said.
But he noticed Matthew would stay downstairs in his room for two or three days at a time, and friends later said "he was acting kind of strange" in the weeks before his death. "He'd lost the gift of hope."
'How did I not see this?'
Granados is a licensed social worker who focuses on suicide prevention, so her younger brother's death was particularly devastating.
"I was like, 'Holy smokes — this is literally what I do for a living,'" she said. "'How did I not see this?'"
Current research shows 20 military veterans commit suicide each day. Granados, who works for the Veterans Administration, said one of her main goals is to increase the warning signs of suicide and how to respond to them.
"Most people would want to help somebody who’s struggling with this," she said. "A lot of people don’t know how to help somebody."
Dixon said she had no idea that her son was depressed, let alone suicidal. He was living in Houston and working for an oil company after graduating from the University of Houston.
"For us, it was a complete blindside and absolutely shocking," she said. "Even friends that he saw daily or even weekly, they said there were no indications he was suicidal."
He left behind instructions and a video to try to explain why he chose to end his life, saying he'd been struggling for 10 years and "no one could have saved him from this eventuality," Dixon said.
Her son's death "blew apart everything I knew," she said.
She's spent the past five years rebuilding her life. Her husband, Jared's stepfather, divorced her because "he couldn't deal with my grieving," she said.
She began going to a survivors of suicide group in Wichita not long after her son's death, and it was relatively small until recently.
Now, "so many people come in those doors it's astonishing," she said.
Dixon and others say they suspect the number of actual suicides is much higher than is officially reported.
"If there's not a note, it's going to be considered accidental," Dixon said. "That skews all the stats nationwide."
Polk is working with other fathers who have lost children to suicide to start conversations, raise awareness about warning signs and eliminate stigmas that linger about depression and mental illness.
For the past two years, he’s put on the Polk Smash Monster Mash around Halloween, his son’s favorite holiday, and raised more than $20,000 to support suicide prevention efforts.
He’s now working to bring a free screening of "Suicide: The Ripple Effect" to the Warren East on June 2. The movie explores the ripple effect a man's suicide attempt has on those around him.
Polk said his goal is to "change the world" — or at least change the way people look at mental illness and suicide.
"My heart aches," Blair said. "We have to be able to do more — and I feel like we’re slipping further away."
How to get help
- Local 24/7 Suicide Prevention Hotline: 316-660-7500
- Text to 741741
- Chat online at ImAlive.org
- National Suicide Prevention Hotline: (800) 273-8255
- TrevorLifeLine (LGBTQ): (866) 488-7386
- Increased anger or irritability
- Losing interest in favorite activities
- Losing interest in school or sports
- Talking or thinking about death
- Giving hints about not being around any more
- Talking about feeling hopeless or feeling guilty
- Pulling away from family or friends
- Writing songs, poems or letters about death or loss
- Giving away possessions to siblings or friends
- Trouble concentrating or thinking clearly
- Changes in eating or sleeping habits
- Engaging in risky activities
Information from StopSuicideICT