Facing death is a way of life for local emergency crews, but they’ve seen more than their share during 2017 in certain categories — and the really bad news is, the year is barely half over.
Surry experienced a significant increase in suicides and drug overdoses for the first six months of 2017, based on statistics through June 30 provided by county Emergency Services Director John Shelton — with each reaching or surpassing totals for all of 2016.
Fifteen suicides occurred in the county from January through June — the same number during all 12 months last year.
The number of drug overdoses rose even more sharply, with 39 occurring as of June 30, compared to 32 drug-related deaths for the entirety of 2016. Surry is on pace to have about 80 such fatalities by the end of 2017.
In identifying reasons for the increases, Shelton — who serves as Surry County’s medical examiner in addition to EMS director — indicated that the deaths are rooted in the so-called “diseases of despair” plaguing America as a whole.
Chronic joblessness has given way to hopelessness in too many cases, going hand in hand with problems including opioid and other forms of drug abuse, alcoholism and ultimately the taking of one’s own life.
Two common threads locally are drugs and mental health, according to Shelton.
“Everything that we do now,” he said of investigating suicide and other unnatural deaths, “is directly or indirectly related in some way to substance abuse and mental health/behavioral issues.”
Those problems also are largely responsible for others including domestic violence, child abuse, traffic accidents and even property crimes such as break-ins and thefts, due to drug users committing crimes to support their habits.
“Most of them will steal from their families before they steal from somewhere else,” Shelton said.
“All these things are directly attributable to what is happening in society today with drug abuse,” he added of the various family and legal issues that have emerged. “There are lot more substance-abuse cases, absolutely, and that’s huge.”
This also has surfaced with traffic accidents, with Shelton mentioning a trend of drivers being impaired by drugs rather than alcohol, which he said was the case with a recent crash in the Rockford area in which a young lady received severe burns.
Six motor vehicle deaths have occurred in Surry so far in 2017, as of June 30, one less than those in 2016 as whole.
Along with paramedics and others who respond to emergencies, medical issues relating to substance abuse and mental illness are becoming more prevalent in venues such as local hospital emergency departments.
“It’s unbelievable the numbers we’re seeing now,” the EMS official said.
Many “different things” can be blamed for the local spike in suicides, according to Shelton.
“A lot of these suicides are related to everything from family breakups to substance-abuse addiction to mental health/behavioral issues,” he said.
In some cases, the suicide victims had not been able to find work, “and they felt that their contribution to their family wasn’t good,” Shelton said.
With others, past drug problems continued to haunt them, mentioning as examples people who became addicted, maybe been charged with felonies and went through rehabilitation. “And when they try to get back into a normal social life, they can’t do that — all they see is failure.”
Shelton says more needs to be done to address cases in which individuals have beaten their addictions and are trying to become productive citizens again — only to face societal roadblocks.
People need to think there is a way out other than through suicide, he added.
Mental health factor
The EMS official reiterated that mental illness plays a big role in suicide and other problems in Surry County.
“And that’s a big issue statewide; it’s not just us,” Shelton said.
“The mental health issues contribute to everything we’re talking about today.”
One hopeful sign is that the state Legislature has recognized a need for additional efforts to combat mental illness more aggressively, in terms of both treatment programs and facilities.
Shelton said the aim is to reach people “before they get to this point in life where they feel like there’s no other way,” rather than suicide or some other drastic measure.
Local officials responding
Shelton said Surry County residents can be assured that local agencies and groups are aware of problems that have been manifested in increased suicide and overdose deaths and actively working to reverse the trend.
This includes the health department, social services officials, county government leaders and others who are trying to address the various factors involved. Shelton also mentioned the Project Lazarus-Surry organization that has been active in building awareness of drug and other risk factors among local students and the community at large.
“We’re training as many people as we can in the use of Narcan,” Shelton said of a life-saving prescription medicine that typically reverses the effect of opioids in overdoses.
“So everybody is very actively trying to get this resolved,” he said. “We’re all trying to find ways to move us in the right direction.”
However, citizens at large also must become more aware and engaged, Shelton believes.
“The community needs to be aware that this is a problem,” he said of substance-abuse and related issues. “The community needs to be involved.”
Reporting suspicious activity related to drugs is one way to do so, said the emergency services director, who says much is at stake for the future.
“If we don’t get things in the system,” he said of steps to reverse the higher death rates, “I think you’re going to see these numbers increase each and every year — so it is a terrible problem.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.