A man jumped to his death from the 15th floor of Portland’s Marriott Downtown Waterfront hotel Sept. 5, five minutes after he checked in.
Five days later, a Portland man leaped from the St. Johns Bridge. The next day, police and firefighters were called to the Burnside Bridge for another man who went over the edge. By month’s end, a 44-year-old man died after jumping off an overpass onto the eastbound lanes of Interstate 84.
So far this year, Portland police and firefighters have responded to 55 suicides or attempts — and those are just the cases that play out in public — up from 39 calls in all of 2010. Portland police have been called to a total of 70 suicides and 144 attempts, up from 69 suicides and 129 attempts last year.
The pace has shaken the city’s public safety responders.
“It was like, ‘Here we go again,” said Paul Corah, Portland Fire Bureau spokesman. “It was day after day. We talked, ‘Do we just respond? Do we do anything about it?’ We have a problem out here, and it’s all preventable.”
Thursday, city firefighters and police will stand with families who have lost loved ones to call attention to a growing problem in Oregon. They’ll gather at the harbor wall at Portland’s Waterfront Park, where a 48-year-old Eugene woman plunged to her death Sept. 23 when she drove into the Willamette River.
The number of suicides in Oregon — which has a suicide rate 35 percent higher than the national average — keeps climbing. According to the state’s violent death report, there were 566 suicides in 2008, 641 in 2009 and preliminary figures show 670 in 2010. The number of calls to Oregon Partnership‘s Suicide Lifeline has risen from 11,303 in 2008 to 19,016 in 2010.
“Oregon’s rate has been consistently higher than the rest of the country,” said Katrina Hedberg state epidemiologist. “We do not have adequate resources to address the problem.”
Marcy and Steve Wambach got a horrifying call about 8 a.m. in April last year from their son’s girlfriend: Tony had tried to kill himself, and he had been found hanging on the back deck of the Portland house he rented. Tony Wambach, 27, died at a hospital two days later, on April 3, 2010.
Marcy Wambach said her first thoughts were: “What do you do next? How do you go on? ”
Thanks to a Survivors of Suicide support group, Wambach learned she wasn’t alone. Six or seven people were at her first meeting. “I remember thinking there’s a woman who’s been coming here five years. So you do live on. You do figure out how to put it back together,” she said.
Her husband was angry at his son, wanted to know every detail and yearned to figure out why he had taken his life. Marcy Wambach refused to even drive by the house where her son hanged himself. “I felt like knowing didn’t matter because it didn’t change it,” she said.
The parents suspect a relationship breakup contributed to their son’s suicide. He also had struggled with alcohol and crack cocaine use, and had lost his job as a salesman for a cell phone service.
His memorial service at Lincoln Memorial on Mt. Scott drew a large crowd.
“You sit there and think, there’s 300 people here he could have called, but he didn’t. One phone call,” she said.
A handful of friends told her at the memorial they knew her son was hurting. “There were three or four people who said, ‘I wish I would have reached out, and I won’t make that mistake again.’ ”
That’s her message to those who know someone in distress: “Don’t wait, reach out.”
To press forward, the Milwaukie couple bought a nearby house and leased it to Oxford House, which provides housing to former addicts to help them stay clean and sober. Their son had been successful at other Oxford Houses in Portland.
“We wanted to do something to commemorate him,” Marcy Wambach said.
Today, she will join public safety officials. “I really would like people to know there are places you can call,” she said.”You don’t have to go it alone.”
Depression a factor
State officials who track suicides aren’t sure what’s driving Oregon’s rate. “People have said everything from ‘look outside – it’s gray’ to our unemployment rate is higher than the rest of the country,” Hedberg said.
Depression is the largest risk factor. While people usually can manage depression or other mental illness, stress can overwhelm them, experts say.
“Families are under increased financial, employment, housing or global stressors. Even while people may have access to treatment, there are stressors that are causing ongoing instability,” said David Hidalgo, interim director for Multnomah County’s Mental Health and Addiction Services Division.
Since 2008, Portland police have been forwarding reports on suicide attempts to the county to ensure the person involved gets care.
While 70 percent of people who killed themselves in Oregon from 2000 to 2006 had a diagnosed mental disorder, alcohol or drug problem, less than a third of men and half of women were receiving treatment when they died. Just over a quarter of suicides involved veterans returning from combat.
The state has issued grants to counties to train adults and youths in suicide intervention skills, support public awareness campaigns and outreach to at-risk populations, such as elderly and youth. Multnomah County got a 2009 grant to train 207 health educators, police, youth, and school resource officers on youth suicide prevention, and a 2010 grant to increase awareness in the Latino community. This month, 15 billboards are up in Multnomah County, broadcasting its 24-hour crisis line phone number.
“The most important thing people can do in our community is to listen to somebody in distress, and alert others if there’s concern,” Hidalgo said.
Threatening to jump
Fire Battalion Chief Todd Keathley worked as a captain for four years at Station 24 off North Interstate Avenue and Going Street, part of a crew often the first to respond to people threatening to jump from the Fremont Bridge.
One call sticks in his memory a decade later.
Police had pulled a man in his late 20s or early 30s off the bridge railing. Days later he was back, threatening to jump. He wanted no contact with police.
So Keathley talked to him, trying to build a rapport. The young man said he hadn’t been taking his medication. His wife left him and took their son.
Keathley said he was a father, too, and tried to get the man to think about his son. He urged him not to make a rash decision when he wasn’t on his meds.
Keathley thought he’d made progress. The man let him get closer and assured Keathley he was going to climb back over the railing.
“He handed me his backpack. Then he put his hand in mine,” Keathley recalled. “He shook my hand and said, ‘Thank you.’ Then he turned and jumped.”Giving back
Tracy Reilly was in her late 20s when her mother, Dorothy Hill, who was bipolar and suffered from depression, went missing in late January 1990. After three days, her car was found beside the Willamette River in Charbonneau. Her mother had walked into the water and drowned.
Reilly struggled with “deep sadness and loss and pain.”
There was also a great sense of shame. Reilly got no counseling. “Everyone just tried to forge on ahead,” she said. “You shouldn’t have to feel shame when you’re grieving.”
In August 2010, Reilly volunteered to work the Oregon Partnership’s suicide line. “It was some way I could give back and honor my mom at the same time,” she said.
Recently when a woman called, Reilly told the caller about her mother, and how her death affected her. “She said, ‘Well it’s given me something to think about.'”
*preliminary figures (Source: State’s Violent Death Report)
Oregon’s suicide rate is 35 percent higher than the national average: The rate is 15.2 suicides per 100,000 people, compared to the national rate of 11.3 per 100,000.
Oregon Partnership’s Suicide Lifeline: 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255)
Military help line: The Oregon Partnership Military Helpline provides 24-hour a day immediate mental health and suicide crisis intervention from a team of veterans and trained volunteer crisis workers. Call 888-HLP-4-VET (888-457-4838)
Youth help line: A peer-to-peer crisis line for teens. Call 877-YOUTH-911 (877-968-8491)
Multnomah County 24 hour crisis line: 503-988-4888