Why do more Beaufort County seniors die by suicide? What can we do to help?

Vanessa Riley, center, serves on the South Carolina chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Over a decade after she lost her son Sean to suicide, she helps organize the Out of the Darkness walk on Hilton Head and connects those who are struggling to counselors.
Vanessa Riley, center, serves on the South Carolina chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Over a decade after she lost her son Sean to suicide, she helps organize the Out of the Darkness walk on Hilton Head and connects those who are struggling to counselors. Submitted

More seniors have died by suicide in Beaufort County in recent years than in nearly any other S.C. county.

Twenty out of every 10,000 seniors in the county, ages 75 and up, died by suicide between 2009 and 2016. Only Aiken County reported a higher rate: 26 out of every 10,000 seniors in the same age range.

Suicide rates among older adults are generally higher in areas with a greater number of seniors — such as Beaufort County, where nearly 10 percent of the population is older than 74. By comparison, just 5.5 percent, 6.2 percent and 7.4 percent of the population in neighboring Jasper, Hampton and Colleton counties are that age.

Home to Sun City Hilton Head, a retirement community for those ages 55 and older, and the Town of Hilton Head Island, also a retirement destination where a third of residents are now 65 and older, there’s a constant need for services that cater to seniors in trouble.

“I’ve had a lot of calls from people who live in Sun City,” said Vanessa Riley, who coordinates the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s survivor outreach program in South Carolina. “We’ll visit them in their homes and try to help them.”

Beaufort County also reflects many national suicide trends. Of those ages 75 and up who died by suicide:

  • Three-quarters were male. Men are less likely to speak openly about their feelings and admit they are suffering, said Helen Pridgen, the area director for AFSP’s South Carolina chapter. Because of that, men are less likely to ask for help.
  • Men were more likely to use lethal weapons. Nearly 70 percent of the county’s suicide victims died from gunshot wounds, according to records from the county coroner’s office.

Experts fear the actual suicide rate for local areas and the nation is much higher. Statistics are subject to error, said Patrick Arbore, director of the Center for Elderly Suicide Prevention, based in San Francisco. And it can sometimes be difficult to determine whether a death was intentional or accidental — a particularly marked problem in deaths with no obvious motive, like opioid overdoses.

“The numbers don’t reflect the real number of people who died by suicide,” Arbore said. “And that’s in part because medical examiners officers and coroners officer across the country won’t rule a person’s death a suicide if there’s any ambiguity.”

Beaufort County Coroner Ed Allen said in evaluating unclear causes of death, he and his staff examine the behavior of the person before death. For example, did the person leave a note or have a history of depressive behavior?

The county has come across “very few” cases in which the cause of death was undetermined, Allen said. However, the coroner’s office does not track the number of undetermined deaths, said deputy coroner Janet Horton.

Why do people end their lives?

Older adults take their own lives for a multitude of reasons, which are sometimes difficult to quantify.

Financial issues may play a role. Homeowners may have overestimated their ability to pay for taxes or other living costs, explained Pridgen of the AFSP.

“Or what if you have money, and then you lose it?” Pridgen said.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention predicts that 90 percent of suicide victims suffer with some sort of mental health condition — and often times those conditions are undiagnosed, Pridgen said.

Other reasons factor in too: Prolonged stress, chronic pain, an expensive medical diagnosis or a recent change in social position, like retirement. The feeling of being a burden upon the rest of one’s family can also be a factor or losing a spouse.

Like many others, Richard, a 64-year-old Hilton Head resident of 19 years, took his own life after the world dealt him blow after blow: illness, a job loss, a robbed sense of purpose and mounting money problems.

Nine days after Richard’s son gave a speech about suicide prevention on Hilton Head last fall, his wife Linda found a lifeless Richard in a downstairs bedroom of their Hilton Head home.

“How could you do this? Why did you do this?” Linda recalled thinking. She, along with Richard, have been given alternate names to protect their family’s privacy. “You poor, poor, poor man. That he was that bereft, that he could do this, was beyond comprehension to me.”

In 2011, doctors diagnosed Richard with Multiple Sclerosis. With his immune system attacking his central nervous system, he told Linda he felt like “damaged goods.”

Richard had always found a sense of purpose through working and providing for his family, Linda said. He was the CEO and one of three partners of a Chicago-based IT company, and he traveled to and from Chicago and Hilton Head for nearly two decades.

But the MS was an insidious force in his body, and he could never predict how it would affect him day-to-day. On Monday, his right leg might slow him down. On Tuesday, he might have trouble seeing clearly. On Wednesday, he might struggle with a splitting headache.

Four years after his diagnosis, Richard’s two partners forced him out of the company. He was, in effect, fired from a business he had helped transform from a struggling company to a profitable venture.

In February 2016, doctors diagnosed him with Cryptococcal Meningitis, a severe brain infection invited by Richard’s heavily weakened immune system. He was hospitalized for one month and sustained some permanent brain damage, Linda said.

When Richard returned home from the hospital, he struggled to find a new job. But Linda didn’t know that. Richard told her he had a regular income from a consulting job. In reality, he racked up credit card debt. He borrowed money from his brother and his priest. He borrowed money from Linda’s mother.

Instead of placing a suicide note next to his body, Richard left behind a life insurance bill. It was due November 23, two days after his death. Richard had also neglected to pay the mortgage on their house for four months, Linda said. She was able to sell the home before it fell into foreclosure.

The deception, Linda said, was entirely unlike the Richard she had known for 36 years — the Richard with whom she drank too much champagne on their first date in 1981, and the kind Richard she had married in 1983.

“This was a man who was very religious, very moral,” Linda said. “Never in our dreams did we think that he would do something like this to us.”

The pain of not being able to say goodbye

When a person dies by suicide, the deceased is not the only victim.

“Suicide doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” said Arbore of the Center for Elderly Suicide Prevention. “It’s always important to think about the loved ones of those who died by suicide. They are often overlooked, and they have to live with trauma.”

Typically, at least six people — friends and family of the person who lost his life — are significantly affected by suicide, Arbore said.

Studies show people who lose someone close through suicide are more likely to die by suicide themselves, and they have a higher risk of developing major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Three months after Richard’s death, Linda hasn’t been able to properly grieve. She’s had to deal with the loss of her husband in terms of dollars and cents, crunching numbers and sorting out money problems that Richard was too embarrassed, or proud — or both — to admit he had.

Suicide may be the end for the victim, but the living must go with the mundane and difficult tasks of everyday life, Linda said. And that can be both disorienting and agonizing.

How to help

Local AFSP organizer Riley, who lost her 21-year-old son to suicide in 2006, has been involved in organizing Hilton Head’s “Out of the Darkness” suicide prevention walk for eight years. The former board chair of South Carolina’s AFSP chapter, Riley still serves on the board and now helps people who have lost a loved one through suicide connect with others through peer counseling.

It’s easy to become isolated in later adulthood, Riley said, which can be a contributing factor to depression. Family members and friends should be on the lookout for signs that a loved one is becoming increasingly lonely.

“If a person is isolating themselves, not enjoying themselves the way they used to, that’s a warning sign,” Riley said.

She and Pridgen recommend that family members trust their gut. If they suspect a loved one has changed her behavior, concerned friends and family should be proactive and ask gently if that family member has considered suicide.

“It may seem awkward at first, but that’s okay,” Pridgen said. Don’t feel like you’ve got to argue ... Let them know that you’re there for them, that you care for them, that you want them to be safe.”

In addition, Pridgen says adults who are struggling with suicidal thoughts should not be ashamed to ask for help.

“This generation grew up in an era where… it’s not a sign of courage to ask for help, it’s a sign of weakness,” Pridgen said. “We are trying to tell them that it’s okay to ask for help. It’s a sign of strength.”

For her part, Linda is still coming to grips with the reality that Richard was unable to do that simple task: to reach out for help. He couldn’t confront his debts. He couldn’t find guidance for his mental health struggles, either.

“He didn’t know how to get help, he didn’t know how to fix it,” she said. “The fact that he couldn’t reach out for help. That’s the part that makes me sad. And angry.”

Kasia Kovacs: 843-706-8139, @kasiakovacs

Suicide Prevention Resources

If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, here are resources to help:

Friendship Line from the Institute on Aging: 1-800-971-0016

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

Veterans Crisis Line: 1-800-273-8255

If you’d rather text than talk, send a message to the free Crisis Text Line: 741741. You can also talk with a specialist online at crisischat.org.

To host a Talk Saves Lives training session at your workplace through the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, email Vanessa Riley at vrileyhhi@gmail.com. To find more resources from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, visit afsp.org.