EXCLUSIVE: Suicide rate hits 25-year high in region

Driving factors: Economy, drug abuse, flawed care for mentally ill

Feb. 23, 2014

Death by suicide: A look at the rising suicide rate in Dutchess County. Video by Chrissie Williams

Written by

Mary Beth Pfeiffer

Poughkeepsie Journal

The son Fran Wishnick retrieved from a Poughkeepsie psychiatric unit in July 2011 was, after a week in a hospital, drugged, depressed — but, most of all, determined.

He shuffled to the car. He ate mechanically when they stopped for a snack. He spoke little — “Whatever,” he replied to his parents’ fussing — once back at his apartment.

In the throes of a disease he knew too well, Craig Wishnick, a lean, brown-haired 27-year-old, had apparently made a plan. Hours later, when Fran and Ken Wishnick answered a knock and saw a uniform, they knew.

They — and he — had fought a battle on many fronts. Asperger’s syndrome. Depression. Ulcerative colitis. Fitting in. Having friends. Getting help.

How heroic he was,” his mother says today, “to keep trying, trying, trying until he couldn’t try anymore.”

Craig Russell Wishnick is one of 238 residents of Dutchess and Ulster counties to die by suicide in the five years ending in 2011, 73 more than in the five years ending in 2003, according to a Poughkeepsie Journal analysis of death certificates over a 13-year period. That is an increase in harder-hit Dutchess of 62 percent and the first hike in the county rate after a quarter-century of steady and solid decline.

The rate of suicide — a measure of population-based frequency that is more reliable, health officials say, than numbers alone — rose 53 percent in Dutchess from 1999-2003 to 2007-11, the Journal study showed, while Ulster’s rate increased 23 percent. The Dutchess hike was nearly four times that of the 57 counties outside of New York City, which saw an increase of 15 percent.

While health officials urge caution in interpreting figures based on fixed years, the upward trend mirrors analyses by the county Department of Mental Hygiene and state Department of Health. Moreover, new county data from 2012 and 2013 — not included in the Journal analysis because it was not available statewide — show the trend continuing in Dutchess County. The county saw the single largest number of suicides in 30 years in 2013, 46, according to just-released data. (Ulster’s 2013 toll, 14, declined to its lowest since 2006, suggesting the upward trend may be leveling.)

(The photos to this article were not archived, so only the data attached with them remains below:)

Craig Wishnick, who committed suicide at age 27 after jumping from a local bridge on July 27, 2011, is pictured climbing a tree a boy. / Spencer Ainsley/Poughkeepsie Journal

Fran and Ken Wishnick recently discussed the life and death of their son, Craig, 27, at their home in New Paltz. On July 27, 2011, Craig committed suicide when he jumped from a local bridge. / Spencer Ainsley/Poughkeepsie Journal

June Pierce, 67, of Poughkeepsie, sits for a portrait in her home while discussing the achievements of her husband, Bernard, an IBM systems analyst. On October 4, 2012, Bernard, who was 65 at the time, committed suicide by jumping from a local bridge. / Spencer Ainsley/Poughkeepsie Journal

This Poughkeepsie Journal investigation began with a computer-assisted analysis of 1.2 million cause-of-death records obtained under the Freedom of Information Law from the New York State Department of Health. Projects writer Mary Beth Pfeiffer examined trends in deaths from 1999 to 2011. The analysis showed the cause of death with the second-biggest increase in the last five years of the database, 2007 to 2011, compared to the first five years, 1999 to 2003, was suicide by hanging. (The analysis was limited to categories involving 25 deaths or more from 2007 to 2011.) The Journal then combined data on various methods of suicide and discovered significant increases in suicide rates in Dutchess and Ulster counties through 2011; local data for 2012 and 2013 suggest the trend is continuing. The biggest increase, among causes with greater than 25 deaths in the five-year period, was in accidental overdose by narcotics. The Journal will examine the issue of opioid abuse and deaths, both intentional and unintentional, in a future report.


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