Year after year, the murder rate in New Orleans is parsed for clues to what’s fueling violent crime. The annual body count has been regarded as a measuring stick for Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s ambitious plans to reduce violence across the city.
Significantly less attention is paid to the number of people who take their own lives, a statistic that has quietly risen over the past few years in New Orleans and in Louisiana as a whole.
Despite its growing frequency, suicide remains a poorly understood phenomenon, surrounded by stigma and rarely reported by the news media.
Concerned by this trend, Dr. Jeffrey Rouse, the Orleans Parish coroner, has teamed up with the RAND Corp., a nonprofit research organization, to examine the delicate question of why local residents decide to end their lives. The goal of the study, Rouse said, is to “illuminate common causes and lead prevention efforts here in New Orleans.”
“Given both the historical and continued under-resourcing of the Orleans Parish Coroner’s Office,” Rouse said, “I need outside consultants to drill down into our data to understand the sources of this trend in suicide.”
Through the end of July — the most recent figures available — the Coroner’s Office this year had investigated 34 suicides, a figure that already eclipsed the number New Orleans saw in all of 2013. If that rate holds steady, this year’s total also will easily surpass the 46 suicides recorded in 2014, according to the Coroner’s Office.
Rouse said his office has not yet outlined the demographics of the victims, so it’s too soon to say which segments of the population are accounting for the spike.
“We’re looking at a sustained increase over the past several years in Orleans Parish,” he said. “I think there’s something there.”
Louisiana’s suicide rate has climbed steadily over the past decade, increasing from 11.1 per 100,000 residents in 2005 to 14.2 per 100,00 residents in 2014, according to data from the state Department of Health and Hospitals.
It’s not yet known how last year’s total compares with other states’ figures, but Louisiana’s suicide rate for 2013 was slightly lower than the climbing national average, according to the American Association of Suicidology.
“It’s always an alarming number because you’d like it to be zero,” said Dr. Beau Clark, the East Baton Rouge Parish coroner.
At least some of the statewide increase in recent years appears to be attributable to a jump in suicides in St. Tammany Parish, a jurisdiction that recorded a 47 percent increase in cases between 2013 and 2014. As of early November, the parish had counted 34 suicides this year, compared with 47 in all of 2014, according to the St. Tammany Coroner’s Office.
The Jefferson Parish Coroner’s Office investigated 70 suicides in 2014, a 49 percent increase compared with the previous year. That figure, the highest the parish had recorded since 2007, nearly matched the combined total of homicides and motor vehicle deaths in Jefferson Parish over the same 12-month period.
But the Jefferson rate has fallen in 2015. Mark Bone, the chief death investigator for the parish Coroner’s Office, said the parish is on pace for 52 suicides this year.
“One suicide is cause for concern,” said Dr. Gerry Cvitanovich, the Jefferson coroner.
Suicides occur with alarming frequency across the United States, but the topic is seldom discussed publicly.
A notable exception to the quiet that usually surrounds individual incidents occurred over the summer when the wife of John Gibson, a pastor and professor at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, spoke publicly about her husband’s suicide. It came shortly after his name appeared on a published list of account holders at Ashley Madison, a website that sought to facilitate adulterous relationships. Gibson had struggled with depression long before the list surfaced.
The suicide of beloved actor Robin Williams last year generated national attention.
Most other cases escape public notice, as in the recent death of a woman believed to have leaped from the 14th floor of a building in the Central Business District. New Orleans police said the woman left a note.
“The number of lives lost each year due to suicide exceeds the number of deaths due to homicide and war combined,” the state Department of Health and Hospitals said in a statement on Sept. 10, observing World Suicide Prevention Day.
The RAND study will rely on “psychological autopsies” to examine individual cases of suicide.
Dr. Rajeev Ramchand, a behavioral scientist and psychiatric epidemiologist at the RAND Corp., said he will work with the Coroner’s Office to interview relatives of suicide victims who agree to participate in confidential surveys.
“We definitely are hoping that if these results are beneficial, we can start replicating our methods and the protocol we developed to other cities to understand variation across cities with respect to suicide,” Ramchand said.
It’s generally believed that about 90 percent of people who commit suicide have experienced some form of mental illness, a correlation Ramchand described as “very strong.”
Family members participating in the study will also be asked about victims’ exposure to Hurricane Katrina and the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster. Other queries will focus on access to firearms, the most common method of death by suicide in the United States.
“Something we’re really interested in is ‘means restriction’: How do we make it harder for people to actually take their lives?” said Ramchand, who previously studied military suicides.
“They’re kind of sensitive questions,” he added. “But it’s never been done before, so we’re trying it out.”