By Maureen O’Hagan: For More Info, Go Here…
Hanging on Kimberly Repp’s office wall in Hillsboro, Ore., is a sign in Latin: “Hic locus est ubi mors gaudet succurrere vitae,” meaning “This is a place where the dead delight in helping the living.”
For medical examiners, it is a mission. Their job is to investigate deaths and learn from them, for the benefit of us all. Repp, however, is not a medical examiner; she is a microbiologist. She is also an epidemiologist for Oregon’s Washington County, where she had been accustomed to studying infectious diseases such as flu or norovirus outbreaks among the living.
But in 2012 she was asked by county officials to look at suicide. The request introduced her to the world of death investigations and also appears to have led to something remarkable: in this suburban county of 600,000, just west of Portland, the suicide rate now is going down. That result is remarkable because national suicide rates have risen, despite decades-long efforts to reverse the deadly trend.
Back in 2012, when Repp looked at the available data — mostly statistics reported periodically to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — she could see that suicide was a big problem and that rates were highest among older white men. But beyond that, the data did not offer a lot of guidance. Plus, they lagged two years behind.
Repp returned to her bosses. “I can tell you who has the highest suicide rate, but I can’t tell you what to do about it,” she recalls telling them. “It’s too broad.”
So she turned to the county medical examiner’s death investigators. They gather information at every unnatural death scene to determine the cause (say, drowning or gunshot) and manner (homicide, suicide or accident). It is an important job but a grim one, and it tends to attract unusual personalities.
(T)he county created a procedure, called a suicide fatality review, to look more closely at these deaths. The review is modeled on child fatality reviews, a now mandatory concept that dates to the 1970s. After getting the okay from family members, key government and community representatives meet to investigate individual suicides with an eye toward prevention.
For example, data revealed a surprising number of suicides at hotels and motels. They also showed a number of those who killed themselves had experienced eviction or foreclosure or had a medical visit within weeks or days of their death. And the information revealed that people in crisis regularly turn their pets over to an animal shelter.
Part of Darmata’s job involves running these training programs, which she described as like CPR for mental health. The training is typically offered to people such as counselors, educators or pastors. But with the new data, the county realized it was missing people who may have been the last to see the decedents alive. It began offering the training to motel clerks and housekeepers, animal shelter workers, pain clinic staffers, and more.