By Karen Billing
For the second year in a row deaths due to suicide and prescription drug overdoses were at record highs in San Diego County in 2012, according to a report released by the San Diego County Medical Examiner on July 23.
The county recorded a record number of suicides, 413, and a suicide rate that rose for the sixth year in a row. The suicide rate is 13.1 per 100,000 people — the highest the county has ever recorded was in 1993 when the suicide rate was 14.5. The disturbing trend of prescription drug-related deaths also continued to rise, from 267 in 2011 to 269 in 2012.
“Our office investigates every non-natural death in San Diego and, tragically, many of these deaths are preventable,” Chief Deputy Medical Examiner Dr. Jonathan Lucas said in a statement. “The report reveals some of the serious issues and behaviors affecting San Diego County residents and visitors.”
Excluding alcohol, methamphetamine is still the number one cause of drug-related deaths for the population as a whole. Meth was linked to 142 deaths in 2012 and was the most common substance in accidental overdose deaths between ages 40 and 69 years old.
The most common drug in accidental overdoses in people ages 20 to 29 is heroin, a drug that has maintained a yearly increase since 2007.
Tom Lenox, supervisory special agent with the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), said there is a link between prescription drugs and the increase in heroin deaths.
“When people have an inability to get access to painkillers, they are turning to heroin as a substitute. We’re seeing that everywhere,” Lenox said.
Lenox said when users are unable to access painkillers, they use the cheaper illegal drug heroin and they often do not know the purity of the drug or how much to take and they overdose
After cocaine, prescription drugs diazepam (brand name Valium), methadone, oxycodone, hydrocodone and diphenhydramine (brand name Benadryl, Sominex) were among the top 10 drugs in overdose deaths.
Alprazolam (brand name Xanax) was among the top three most common drug/medications found in those under age 40 — it had a sudden increase in frequency in 2011 that remained common in 2012, and attributed to 55 deaths.
Lenox said the increase in prescription drug deaths is often a result of people taking pills in combination with each other, with alcohol or with other illegal drugs.
“It is a priority for the DEA right now,” Lenox said. “We’re focused on trying to get people aware of the dangers that these drugs cause and, hopefully, educate them that these drugs are designed for a specific medical use, not for recreational use… They’re not a safe drug. There’s a misconception that because they’re prescribed by a doctor that they’re safer than illegal drugs.”
Lenox said people get their hands on the drugs through medicine cabinets or “doctor shopping” (getting multiple prescriptions from multiple doctors) or taking advantage of the proximity to Mexico to walk across the border and purchase pills for either personal use or to sell them.
Diazepam and morphine also saw larger increases, according to the report. There were no deaths related to “bath salts” or ecstasy in 2012.
Suicides by firearm accounts for the most common method (148) and suicides by hanging or asphyxia increased to 118.
As in previous years, the rate of suicide was highest among men 85 years and older. The highest number of suicides were in the 45-54 age range with 92, 69 of them males.
Nine suicides were recorded in the 15-19 age group and three in the 10-14 age group.
“It’s just a really sad and unfortunate thing,” said Jimm Greer, the founder of the San Diego non-profit initiative You Matter To Me (UMTR2ME). “In the last few years more people are talking about suicide and getting people the support they need. Hopefully that will start a downward trend.”
Greer has a unique perspective — he’s someone who has found a successful life through an unsuccessful suicide, attempting to hang himself at age 18.
Now 44, Greer started UMTR2ME a year ago as a way to provide support, hope and motivation for people who are struggling with mental illness, depression and thoughts of suicide.
“I realized I needed to turn around and move back into the darkness, that I couldn’t survive a suicide attempt and know what I know and not be helping people,” Greer said. “I was moving in the wrong direction and that would’ve been selfish. I thought, ‘Let’s go this way, grab a couple people and walk with them.’”
Greer was a part of Torrey Pines High School’s Yellow Ribbon Week in the spring, a week that promoted suicide prevention and awareness with a variety of speakers and activities. Greer doesn’t have a problem sharing his story with anyone, but he admits he finds public speaking petrifying and wasn’t sure the teens would listen.
“Kids were coming up to me afterward. I had been thinking, ‘I’m 44, I’m going to lose the connection with these kids,’ but I was surprised. One girl came up and just hugged me and walked away,” Greer said. “Another girl came up, looked at me like she wanted to say something and just started to cry. I hugged her and told her that if all she could do was cry, that was a good place to start.”
Greer’s vision is for more people to take the easy step of being there for someone, to be there to listen or just to tell someone that they matter.
“That’s something nobody says or hears enough and that’s so huge,” said Greer. “Nobody had a clue that I wanted to die...sometimes just a smile, just a little thing like that can help because you don’t know what someone’s going through. Tell someone today ‘You matter to me’ because you don’t know if you’ll get the chance to see them again.
“I think people are afraid to hear other people’s problems because they want to be able to fix them. But people are not always looking for someone to fix their problem, they’re just looking for someone to listen.”
UMTR2ME has grown through its website and through social media, reaching people not only in San Diego but across the country and even as far away as Italy. Online there are messages of hope and a growing community — Greer personally responds to emails and texts he receives from people looking for help.
In addition to Torrey Pines High, he’s also spoken to Marines at Miramar and will participate in the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention Out of the Darkness Walks in San Diego and Los Angeles on Aug. 19 and 26, as well as the Survivors of Suicide Loss San Diego’s Save a Life Walk on Nov. 10.
The organization has white rubber bracelets stamped “UMTR2ME” that Greer has found can spark conversations and connections on its own.
One of Greer’s favorite things to tell people is that life is like the weather. There are going to be sunny days and rainy days. He says if life seems easy or that you’ve got it all figured out, you’re not really living.
“After my suicide, things actually got much worse,” Greer said.
He remembers waking up in the hospital and seeing his parents crying at the foot of his bed, thinking this wasn’t what was supposed to be happening and that he couldn’t even succeed at suicide.
Moving forward was not easy and it wasn’t until 10 years after his suicide attempt that he was clinically diagnosed with manic depressive/bipolar disorder 2, as well as attention deficit disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder. The diagnosis helped him understand there were things going on that he could not control and it became important for him to learn about his illness and be a self-advocate for his mental health.
He credits the support of his loving wife in helping him get through—they’ve been married 18 years and have a 21-year-old son.
“My life has its ups and it has its downs. You don’t know what the future holds, you don’t even know what tomorrow holds. That’s the thing I love sharing with teenagers especially,” Greer said.
He still has downs and hard days but on those days he makes an effort to ask for support. He knows it is not weakness to ask for help, it is not weakness to keep fighting, to find hope and go one more day.
“You just can’t do it alone,” Greer said.
Learn more about You Matter To Me at UMTR2ME.org, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call (760) 440-UMTR.
Mental health and substance abuse help is available through the county’s behavioral health access and crisis line at (888) 724-7240. More resources are available at up2sd.org.
While the county holds prescription drug take back days throughout the year, locally the city has a drug drop off box at the Northwestern Division Police Station in Carmel Valley. The drug drop off box is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week on the north side of the station at the pedestrian gate. The station is located at 12593 El Camino Real, 92130.