After death by natural causes, accidental drug overdoses and suicides were the leading killers in cases investigated by the Luzerne County Coroner’s Office last year, according to its newly released annual report.
Drug deaths have received more public attention lately because of local and national coverage of the opioid crisis. The county had 155 overdose deaths in 2017, the third consecutive year of new record highs.
But the number of suicides last year — 64 — also marked an increase, despite efforts to combat the problem.
County human service officials had cautiously expressed optimism last year when they learned the number of suicides had dipped below 50 in 2016, which had not occurred since 2009.
Suicide deaths ranged from 50 to 67 annually from 2010 through 2015.
The Luzerne-Wyoming Counties Mental Health and Developmental Services agency has stepped up suicide prevention efforts in recent years with public awareness programs, including a free presentation at the F.M. Kirby Center last year by best-selling author Kevin Hines, who had survived a suicide attempt jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge.
Hundreds of gun locks also have been distributed by the agency since June to prevent the use of guns without a key, and more will be disseminated, agency Administrator Tara Vallet said Thursday.
Twenty-six of last year’s suicides were caused by self-inflicted gunshot wounds, and the same number involved hangings, the statistics show.
County officials have warned family members to be on alert if a gun owner exhibits signs of depression or uncharacteristic behavior, although some suicide victims mask their distress.
The locks may eliminate an opportunity or means for someone in a fragile state, Vallet said.
“Any kind of delay gives someone a better chance for reaching out for help,” she said, urging anyone contemplating suicide to dial 211 to be linked to HelpLine counselors.
Most of the county’s suicide deaths involve adult men who were not participating in county human service programs, Vallet said. Of the 49 county suicides in 2016, 80 percent were men.
“We want to target everyone but also want to focus in on that population,” she said.
One plan is a public service announcement shown before movies in theaters. Posters in business restrooms, including those at eating and drinking establishments, also are under discussion, she said, comparing the effort to domestic violence messages often found in female bathrooms.
A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders “strike out stigma” game also will be held in April to stress mental health issues are not shameful.
“One of our biggest barriers is stigma associated with reaching out for help,” Vallet said.
Financial struggles, health problems and chronic depression are among the reasons cited for suicides that have been investigated by the coroner’s office.
Two of the hanging deaths involved female county prison inmates, the coroner’s office has ruled.
Crashes and falls
Motor vehicle crashes and falls were next in line as a cause of death, with 28 in each category.
Some other causes of death last year:
• Homicides: 15
• Fires: 5
• Drownings: 4
• Motorcycle crashes: 3
• All-terrain vehicle accidents: 2
County Coroner William Lisman said there were a few accidental deaths caused by adults co-sleeping with infants, prompting him to issue a reminder for parents and caretakers to be careful.
The office must investigate deaths that occur outside medical facilities or when the deceased have been in a hospital setting for less than 24 hours, Lisman said.
A total of 940 cases last year were deemed death from natural causes, the statistics show.
Continuing a trend, the number of cremations in the county rose 14 percent in 2017, to a new high of 2,139.
In comparison, the office processed 1,872 cremations in 2016 and 814 in 2002.
The law requires the coroner’s office to review death certificates before a cremation is authorized in case something suspicious or questionable must be examined, Lisman said.
Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.