There were, by far, more suicides in Champaign County last year than in the past decade, and about a third involved young adults.
Champaign County Coroner Duane Northrup said 31 deaths were ruled suicides at inquests in 2004. Thats up from 18 suicides in 2003, which is also the average number for the past 10 years, he said.
While the pace has slowed, the rate this year still appears high. Through mid-September, the coroners juries had ruled that 15 deaths were suicides. If that pace continues, the total in the county would be down from last year but still above the norm in recent years, Northrup said.
Some of the increase in 2004 came among college-age individuals, the coroner said.
We used to average one or two college students a year, Northrup said.
Ten deaths in Champaign County that were ruled suicide in 2004 involved people between the ages of 20 and 23. Of those, seven are believed to have been students.
The county also had an unusual year with three suicides at Champaign County jail facilities and three suicides in which people placed themselves in front of moving trains.
One of the train suicides involved a man who was a student going to a school out of town, and two of the jail suicides were young men not believed to be college students.
Northrup said that theres no way to prove it, but he believes some of those deaths involved a copycat phenomenon.
Theres a strong possibility that they knew about or were familiar with the way it was done in previous cases, Northrup said.
Dr. Madelyn Gould, professor in child psychology and public health at Columbia University, New York, said research shows some suicides occur in clusters, primarily in teen-agers and young adults.
Luckily, completed suicides are a rare event, Gould said. That doesnt take away the tragedy.
Gould, also a research scientist at New York State Psychiatric Institute, has studied suicide contagion or copycat suicides. She said there are lots of copycat or contagion behaviors in society, everything from fashion to recreational activities or cars.
When a person who is vulnerable to possible suicide learns, directly or indirectly, about someone else committing suicide, it may influence them to do the same thing, Gould said.
If someone in your school, someone in your jail or someone in your community commits a suicide, theres direct knowledge about suicide, but it may not influence thoughts of attempting suicide yourself, according to Gould.
But when a vulnerable person knows someone who commits suicide, it may be attractive to do the same thing, she said.
If the situations were different, they might have gotten the help they needed, Gould said. Unfortunately, when you have a model and somebody has the motivation, even a little bit, it may increase the motivation.
Ruth McCauley, acting dean of students at the UI, said mental illness contributes significantly to people of all ages.
For students, problems with grades, finances or relationships could all contribute to stress, but mental illness is the most significant underlying factor, she said. Some types of mental illness do not surface until people reach young adulthood.
Students have other problems, but mental disease is probably the underlying cause. The stresses help trigger the mental illness.
McCauley said that most mental illnesses can be treated successfully and people, including students with all the stresses they have, can manage quite well.
The Champaign County suicides in 2004 involved: four people in their 70s, two in their 60s, three in their 50s, two in their 40s, five in their 30s and two in their teens.
Suicidal people are more likely to complete the act if they are under the influence of drugs or alcohol, Northrup said. Of the 31 suicides last year, 13 cases were found to have alcohol or drugs as a contributing factor, according to the coroner.
If they are under the influence, it can cause them to complete the act, he said.
Northrup said there is also a concern that some young people taking certain medicines for depression and anxiety may be at risk of having more suicidal thoughts.
There are times these people should be watched for mood changes, the coroner said.
Northrup said he and the deputy coroners thoroughly investigate deaths that are suspected suicides. Generally, there is not a suicide note, but there are sometimes other indicators that a person was trying to put things in order, he said.
They may leave things or they may call loved ones and tell them they love them, unexpectedly, Northrup said.
Its common that family members do not want to believe their loved ones intentionally killed themselves, he said.
Most families are initially in denial that it happened or could happen, Northrup said. Once an investigation proceeds, it often turns up information that (the suicide intention) was there, but nobody knew about it, including family members. They didnt have a clue as to what was going on.