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Jerry Davich: Suicide spike highlights Porter County Coroner’s 2012 report

Scott M Bort/Post-Tribune Chuck Harris swears as Porter County Coroner during swearing-ceremony Saturday morning Porter County AdministratiCenter Valparaiso.

Scott M Bort/Post-Tribune Chuck Harris swears in as Porter County Coroner during a swearing-in ceremony Saturday morning at the Porter County Administration Center in Valparaiso. PTMET

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Updated: March 23, 2013 6:14AM



Suicide is typically the lone method of death that prompts hushed whispers and respectful dismissiveness, even in the news-hungry newspaper business.

Unless it’s done in public, or in high-profile fashion, suicides don’t get too much attention by media.

Similarly, funeral home obituaries tactfully omit this stigmatized detail of death. Polite conversation dances around the sensitive subject. And even friends or family of the deceased are often too shamed, sorrowful or embarrassed to mention it.

Suicides, however, take place consistently in every corner of society, and unless you know the victim or the family you rarely hear or read about it.

That is, until the annual county coroner’s report is released, as it was Wednesday in Porter County. And, in that county’s case, the number of reported suicides in 2012 jumps off the page.

Last year, there were 36 suicides in Porter County, a 90 percent jump from the previous year and most likely the highest number ever in that once-sleepy county.

That’s also a significant figure compared to the total number of case files last year, 179, where the coroner’s office investigated circumstances and determined the cause and manner of death. (The coroner’s office also had 185 “notification-only deaths” last year, defined as a natural death situation where a physician determined the cause of death.)

“Twenty percent of the Porter County Coroner’s office cases involved suicide — an astonishing figure,” said Porter County Coroner Chuck Harris.

“From my office’s experience, these deaths usually are directly related to relationship conflicts and economic desperation,” he told me Wednesday.

National averages show that 90 percent of people who die from suicide have a diagnosable and treatable psychiatric disorder at the time of their death, Harris noted.

“With these statistics, I think it goes to show why mental health treatment centers like Porter-Starke Services are so greatly needed in our community,” Harris said. “There is no telling how many lives have been saved and not ended up resulting in becoming one of my investigations.”

Economic desolation and social desperation are just two key triggers of suicide. But Harris believes a larger problem involves drug use, which has become a familiar but often invisible aspect of our cultural landscape.

“Back when we were children, there was a negative stigma that accompanied drug use,” he said. “That is not necessarily the case anymore.”

Also, wholesale prices for heroin have declined from $150,000 per kilogram in 2008 to $55,000 per kilogram in 2011, making it a “cheaper high” for drug users, said Harris, citing statistics from the Lake County High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area report, which includes Porter County.

“There are so many people out there that actually overdose, and who are so close to death but they don’t realize it,” Harris said. “We can’t tolerate that. I really hope people realize that we have over one drug-related death a week in Porter County.”

One drug-related death each week? That’s amazing, and amazingly sad. But is it shocking? I doubt it.

Highlights and lowlights

The most common controlled-prescription drug abuse in Northwest Indiana includes drugs such as Hydrocodone (including Vicodin), alprazolam (including Xanax), as well as carisoprodol, Adderall and clonazepam, Harris said.

What causes someone to overdose? Is it the first time they try a few pills? Normally, it’s not.

“The reason people are overdosing is because they don’t ever get to the high that they got to the first time,” replied Harris, who believes there is a strong correlation between drug usage and the high unemployment rate.

On a global level, 80 percent of worldwide prescription painkillers are consumed by the United States, even though we comprise less than 5 percent of the human population.

Locally, the Porter County drug-related death statistics can be eye-opening, but “I can promise you that all 92 counties in Indiana are going to have the similar drug problems that we are having here.”

Other highlights (or lowlights) from the county’s 2012 report include:

The number of homicides remained the same as the 2011 figure, at five, with the county’s average at three from the past 18 years.

The number of drownings also remained the same as 2011, with four. (The highest number of drownings was eight in 1995.)

The 18-year average for coroner cases per year is 142 (from 1995 to 2012), and the past 12-year average is 154 (from 2001 to 2012).

The average number of autopsies per year (including standard and forensic) is 76.

Also, there were four sudden unexplained infant deaths, which used to be termed sudden infant death syndrome, compared to just one in 2011 and zero the two previous years.

The only silver lining, of sorts, from the report was that no pedestrians died from motor vehicular collisions (compared to two such deaths in 2011).

Small consolation, I know. But in a county with so much drug abuse and quiet suicides (not to mention failed suicide attempts), we should count even the smallest of blessings.

Poster face for corruption?

Former Lake County Coroner Tom Philpot has tried everything to stay out of prison after being convicted last summer of theft and mail fraud. His attorney claimed Philpot was on medication for anxiety, he took to drinking and, as a felon, he can’t run for public office again, which must really tear him apart inside.

Through the years, Philpot had become the poster face for political job-hopping in Lake County. And he wore it proudly, if not smugly.

But, with his conviction, he has now become the poster face for political corruption as well in Lake County. Worse yet, the court of public opinion has found him guilty of all charges, and then some.

Should he serve 18 months, as he was sentenced on Thursday? From what I’ve heard from region residents who are way too familiar with his name, billboards, and reputation, 18 months isn’t enough.

Philpot’s situation should be a lesson for us all. Reputations matter more then we think. And they still play a role in our perception of others, especially public officials whose name is now synonymous with political corruption.

It’s a reputation that will linger a lot longer than 18 months.

He said, she said

My Monday column on gender-neutral language prompted a he-said, she-said debate among the sexes. But most readers agreed that this topic is an over-reaction to political correctness.

Here’s a sampling of your responses.

“Jerry, I won’t suggest ‘where it should stop,’ except to remind folks that not all words with ‘man’ are gender specific,” said Kenneth J. Schoon, from the School of Education at Indiana University Northwest in Gary. “Manus is the Latin word for hand, whether the hand of a man or a woman. So, for instance, manual labor refers to work done by hand, not work done by men.”

Jeffrey C. wrote to me: “When does it stop? Our culture and society has become over-sensitive. Should gynecologist become gal-necologist? Should menopause become womenopause or personopause? Should hysterectomy become her-sterectomy? It could go on forever before we reach total gender neutrality.”

Sandra Montrose of Dyer said, “Speaking as a woman, and for all women, it’s about time that these masculine-leaning words get neutralized for the sake of equality.”

John F. said, “Jerry, if they want to change the name of a Manhole Cover to Womanhole Cover, so be it. Otherwise leave it alone.”

For more reader responses, listen to my “Casual Fridays” radio show this Friday from noon to 1 p.m. on WLPR, 89.1-FM, where I play a weekly montage of readers’ voice mails called “What’s Your Hangup?” It’s always an entertaining collection of voice mails, from the angry to the amusing. Don’t be surprised to hear your call to me.



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