Deaths of despair: Suicides, overdoses up sharply in Ulster

Suicides and drug overdoses have increased significantly so far in 2020 vs. the same time period last year. The following numbers were provided by the Ulster County Sheriff’s Office:

2019 2020 Increase
Non-Fatal Overdoses 108 168 56%
Fatal Overdoses 11 22 100%
Suicides 10 15 50%

Sheriff Juan Figueroa spoke about the overdose issue earlier this month in a press conference announcing that manslaughter charges would be brought against an Ulster County resident who provided fentanyl-laced heroin to someone who later died of an overdose

“On top of the global pandemic, we still have our opioid epidemic,” said Figueroa. “Because of the pandemic, people are home, people are not working, and this issue has really taken off and spiked in Ulster County.”

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Ulster County Commissioner of Health Dr. Carol Smith said those factors also influenced the uptick in suicide. 

The overall effects of the COVID-19 crisis, including social isolation, and financial and emotional stressors, have disproportionately impacted vulnerable populations across the board, including those suffering from suicidal ideation,” said Smith. “Preventing suicide is a challenge that requires the entire community’s active engagement and participation. Community members should know that there are resources available that can be found on our website and help is always available by calling the Family of Woodstock 24 Hour Crisis Hotline at 845-338-2370.”

We spoke with Tamara Cooper, team leader of the hotline. She said that while Family hasn’t observed an increase in the number of calls related to suicide, its total call volume has more than doubled since March. 

“A high majority of our calls have an anxiety component to them,” she said. “And we know that anxiety is a risk factor for suicidal thinking.” 

She said feelings of anxiety were being driven by the fear of the coronavirus, fear of the impact of financial difficulties, and the psychological effects of social distancing. 

“Loneliness is on the rise,” she said. “And we think that people being able to call a hotline and hear another human voice is a protective factor right now.”

Cooper said some of the increased overdoses could be suicides, though it takes a lengthy forensic investigation to determine that. Another factor is the stigma that prevents friends and families from sharing that their loved one had spoken about suicide previously. 

“And we still operate under those stigmas and myths that it’s best to leave these thoughts alone,” she said. “We know that it is best to talk about. And it is best to ask people openly and directly, ‘Are you thinking about suicide?’ It’s a hard question to ask. It’s also a hard question to ask in a way that indicates you want an honest answer because often we ask in a way that prompts people to say no because we will feel better if they say no.”

Figureroa also spoke about solutions.

“It’s not just about arresting people, it’s about helping these individuals and helping the families that are involved in this epidemic,” he said.

The sheriff mentioned initiatives he put into place since taking office 18 months ago. These include education and reaching out directly to addicts to offer them help. Figueroa said his team has assisted 52 individuals and have placed 33 people in treatment. For inmates who come to the jail with an addiction, the sheriff introduced a Medically Assisted Treatment program that uses an opiate substitute (like methadone and Suboxone) to help wean addicts off heroin.

An increase in these numbers as a result of the pandemic and resulting lockdowns was predicted. A study released in March predicted 75,000 “deaths of despair” from such causes. 

So far, the death toll from COVID-19 stands at just under 125,000 nationwide and 85 in Ulster County.

In addition to the Family hotline (845-338-2370), those who need help can also reach out to the  national suicide talk (1-800-273-8255) and text (741-741) lines.

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