It has been 15 years since Joshua Boyne hung himself. Two years since his younger brother Jesse Boyne shot himself.
Five years since Willis Williams II put a bullet in his side.
Four months since Ian McCoil felt he couldn’t bear the weight of his anxieties anymore. He feared being a burden to those he loved. His parents found him shot dead in the back yard.
“Every day I will miss Ian, and every day I will wish I could have done something different,” said his younger brother, Kyle McCoil, a 21-year-old senior at the University of South Carolina.
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One of the leading causes of death nationally and locally is on the rise, claiming the life of someone like McCoin, Williams and the Boynes roughly every 11.5 hours in South Carolina.
Richland and Lexington counties have had as many deaths by suicide so far this year as all of last, continuing an upward trend that’s seen local suicides double in a decade. And the holidays, which tend to be a particularly bad period for suicides, are still ahead.
Richland County Coroner Gary Watts said the number might actually be higher, because suicides committed by prescription drug overdose are sometimes difficult to prove.
Within the upward trend are a few notable microtrends, according to Watts and Lexington County Coroner Margaret Fisher. Among them:
▪ The number of suicide victims over age 65 has nearly doubled in Richland County between 2015 and October 2016, up to 11 from six.
▪ Women, who traditionally have committed suicide by overdose, are increasingly turning to hanging or gunshots to kill themselves. In Lexington County, hanging has become more popular for women than gunshots, Fisher said.
▪ A longstanding element, the goodbye note, is giving way to a digital farewell. “A lot of people use text messages – they don’t write a note,” Fisher said. “Or they post on Facebook.”
Stigmas get in the way of help
Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in South Carolina and the 10th nationally as well, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
And for every suicide, there are 25 attempts, according to the American Foundation for Prevention of Suicide.
Suicides continue to increase, in part, because “there are a number of mental health conditions, like depression, that are still not being treated, despite some indicators that attitudes toward mental health and help-seeking are improving,” said Helen Pridgen, S.C. area director for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
“We’re not putting the attention to suicide prevention that we are some of the other leading causes of death,” she said.
Does prevention last? Yes, Pridgen said. Ninety percent of people who survive after attempting suicide will not go on to die from suicide.
But the key is getting access to preventative measures.
Lorraine Williams’ son, Willis, didn’t want anyone to think he was “crazy,” she said.
Willis was a funny, athletic, popular 19-year-old. But the last year or two of his life, Willis had begun to change.
He became distant from his mother. He began to drink excessively. His doctor suspected he was bipolar. He was masking his pain, his mother said, and she was afraid for him.
Losing a child ripped my heart in half.
But paralyzed by the stigma of mental illness, Willis rejected the possibility of treatment. And because he was an adult, no one could make him get help.
“That stigma is part of the reason he’s not here,” Williams said.
Williams had gotten into an argument with her son on July 28, 2011, before he ran out the door and, before her eyes, put a gun to his side and pulled the trigger. Just before he died, about an hour later, he asked an Irmo fire captain to tell his family, “I love them, and I’m sorry.”
“As a parent, you want to save your children,” Williams said. “Losing a child ripped my heart in half.”
Maxine Johnson takes calls on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline from all across South Carolina.
“They’re usually at a total loss of hope, and they feel that, in many cases, the only option they have is to end their life,” Johnson said.
Often, the key to defusing those thoughts, she said, is “letting them know that someone in this world does care about what they’re going through ... (and) that they do have value.”
Seniors face unique isolation
Locally and nationally, middle-aged people represent the largest number and percentage of suicide victims.
The percentage of victims in Richland County who are younger, those under 35, generally has declined since 2009 after a spike in in 2009 and 2010. But the number of elderly suicide victims, while still a relatively low percent of overall suicide deaths, has nearly doubled in Richland County between 2015 and October 2016.
Nationally, elderly victims tend to be disproportionately high compared to the size of their population. And that’s with the massive generation of baby boomers only just now reaching seniorhood. Senior suicide could have something to do with people “wanting to be in control of how they die instead of wasting away,” Watts said.
Money might also be a factor for some seniors, Watts said. “I think a lot are thinking about the financial impact treatment for terminal illness may have on their family,” he said.
More so than other populations, seniors can be at risk of being physically and socially isolated from other people, which could have negative mental and emotional effects, said Pam Dukes, director of Senior Resources in the Midlands.
It’s the feeling of being forgotten, feeling like no one cares for you.
Pam Dukes, Senior Resources director
“It’s the feeling of being forgotten, feeling like no one cares for you,” Dukes said. “You know, a senior who’s isolated in their home may not have transportation or access to services to get them out of their homes to provide the human interaction we all need.”
Senior Resources offers services that include a foster grandparents program, a senior companions program, daily phone calls and Meals on Wheels that give seniors a chance to interact with other people and reduce feelings of isolation.
Other senior resources in the Midlands, such as the Lourie Center, help seniors stay active and interactive with exercise classes, lectures and group trips.
“Our society is different from others,” Dukes said. “We don’t seem to treasure older people like other societies do. We don’t recognize the contributions they’ve made to put all of us where we are.”
‘The pain ... just gets passed on’
What’s the solution?
For one thing, more research dollars need to go toward suicide prevention, Pridgen said.
“When you put the attention and the dollars into a cause of death, it starts to go down,” she said. “If we put the research dollars also into mental health and studies of the brain, there’s so much yet to learn and so much benefit to individuals and families.”
Talking more about mental health would help, too, experts say.
In addition to isolation, the negative stigma of talking openly about suicide and accepting mental illness is a common thread connecting many deaths.
Suicide “affects so many people. It’s hard to understand why it’s still taboo” to discuss, said Cody Phillips, who lost his two brothers, Joshua and Jesse Boynes, to suicide 13 years apart.
“I think most people are afraid to admit their shortcomings and admit that they’re having trouble,” Phillips, 24, said. “Humans are very prideful, and I think the thought of hurting someone else or disappointing someone else can be very draining.”
Joshua Boyne was 17 when his mother found him hanging in their garage one morning. Only 8 at the time, Phillips remembers his mother screaming and running inside.
“Dealing with death for the first time, it didn’t really sink in what had happened,” he said. “I knew that Joshua wasn’t going to be coming back and I wouldn’t get to see him again.”
Thirteen years later, 24-year-old Jesse Boyne shot himself after an argument with his wife. “It was gut-wrenching to lose Jesse,” his brother said.
But the pain from the person doesn’t go away. It just gets passed on to everyone else that’s left.
“Because it’s so taboo (to discuss) in our society right now, I think a lot of people ... think, ‘Once it’s done, it’s done. I don’t have to deal with it anymore,’” Phillips said. “But the pain from the person doesn’t go away. It just gets passed on to everyone else that’s left.”
Phillips has taken that pain that was passed on to him and the others left behind by his brothers and turned it into a quest for suicide prevention.
He has a tattoo on his left wrist of a heart bound by a semicolon, a symbol adopted by Project Semicolon to signify that “your story is not over.”
When people notice his tattoo, Phillips said, it gives him the opportunity to tell his brothers’ stories and destigmatize the topics of mental illness and suicide. And reversing the stigma, he hopes, could help save lives.
“After going through suicide twice like that, you just feel like you have to bring more awareness to it so people don’t feel trapped and that there’s only one option,” Phillips said. “They should know there are other options out there.”
77 in 2014
74 in 2015
74 in 2016 through Oct. 20.
36 in 2014
44 in 2015
42 in 2016 through the end of August.
SOURCE: Richland and Lexington county coroners
For those in crisis, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline has counselors available 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255.
Those looking for resources can check out the American Society for Suicide Prevention at www.afsp.org, the National Alliance on Mental Illness at www.nami.org, Mental Health America at www.mentalhealthamerica.net and the S.C. Department of Mental Health at www.state.sc.us/dmh.