COCHISE COUNTY — This year’s National Suicide Prevention Month coincided with an exceptionally scary time for our communities in Cochise County.
A study conducted by the CDC in late June shows 40% of Americans report struggling with mental health or substance abuse during COVID, and depression rates have spiked three times compared to pre-pandemic numbers.
But how does suicide impact our communities on a hyperlocal level? We gathered county-level and city-level data for a look at how suicide impacts Sierra Vista and Cochise County as a whole.
While year-on-year data isn’t available for Benson, Bisbee, Willcox/Bowie and Douglas/Pirtleville primary care areas, due to low numbers, those communities maintained an average of around or below six deaths by suicide per year between 2013 and 2019. In particular, a 2017 report from the Department of Health shows that the Bisbee primary care area saw more than twice the mortality by suicide of Sierra Vista and larger cities throughout Arizona.
Stigma against suicide and mental health treatment, especially in rural and veteran communities, remains a huge barrier to care. In Arizona, the risk of suicide for veterans is three time higher than non-veterans.
A study focused on rural veteran suicide this past May titled “We’re Afraid to Say Suicide” found that raising awareness on the extent of local suicide occurences is crucial to improving mental health service access and suicide prevention.
In Arizona, suicide rates in rural communities are twice as high as those in urban communities, rates that may be exacerbated by risk factors such as language barriers to mental health treatment, military or veteran stigmatization and pandemic social isolation.
Victor Ramos, site director for Pinal Hispanic Council Centro De Bienestar in Douglas, says that the bilingual mental healthcare service center has seen a 20% increase in service provision during the pandemic. The center focuses on culturally-responsive care for the local Hispanic population, who may face more limited access to treatment.
Ramos says transitioning to telehealth during COVID has been both a challenge and a boon — while some community members’ limited access to technology meant care had to be provided through landline telephones, he also notes that telehealth has allowed some patients to circumvent stigmatization, as they no longer worry about being spotted at the physical treatment center.
Several local initiatives and resources have also arisen to support our military and veteran communities, who statistically are at increased risk for suicide, during this time. Fort Huachuca will be hosting its Suicide Stand Down Day on Sept. 27, while organizations like the local NAMI Southeast Arizona chapter and Warrior Healing Project seek to assist veterans in combating isolation and trauma.
“Suicide is one of the top issues right now in our Army that we’re trying to get after,” Brigadier General Tony Hale, the new commander at Fort Huachuca, told the Herald/Review recently.
The Cochise County Department of Health and Social Services has also announced prioritizing mental healthcare treatment as part of their long-range planning. Officials from the county health department did not respond to requests for comment.