The House of Refuge in Hillsdale. Nicole Ault | Collegian


When Lorie Nichols’ phone rings, she knows that answering it might put a life in her hands.

Some­times a call comes in the middle of the night, a last grasp at life from a sui­cidal person who listens to a deeper instinct, or a des­perate plea for assis­tance from the person’s friend. A member of the Hillsdale County Suicide Pre­vention Coalition, Nichols talks to her callers until they’re safe, directs them to a coun­selor or a hotline, or calls 911. 

She gets these calls about once a month, and so far, no one has died on her watch, she said. But not everyone calls; not everyone even knows they have the option.

Twelve sui­cides were reported in Hillsdale County in 2016, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Ser­vices. Three sui­cides have been reported since August 2017, said County Com­mis­sioner Ruth Brown. Year to year, the official numbers fluc­tuate: Ten sui­cides were reported in 2012, four in 2013, 12 in 2014.

As the country faces a growing epi­demic of sui­cides — earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control reported a 25.4 percent uptick in sui­cides from 1999 – 2016, and a 32.9 percent increase in Michigan — members of Hillsdale County are fighting it with pre­ven­tative action in the adult com­munity, the college, and the local schools.

The five-year moving-average number of sui­cides in Hillsdale County in 2012 – 2016, 8.6, is the highest it’s been at least since 1999 – 2003, according to a data page from MDHHS. Though the MDHHS lists no age-adjusted rate for the county in 2016, citing imprecise or unre­liable infor­mation, the crude rate was 26.2 (out of 100,000 people) that year, down from 28.3 in 2014 but higher than any other crude rate available since 2000.

But the sta­tistics don’t really tell the story, according to Brown, who said suicide is a serious problem in the county — and underreported.

The rates don’t account for attempts, and even suc­cessful sui­cides are kept off of death records, often masked by friends and rel­a­tives who are scared of shame and trauma. Brown said she knows of a woman who paid a funeral director to call her husband’s death an accident. He’d turned on the gas in the garage, and she didn’t want her children to know.

Brown herself became aware of Hillsdale’s suicide problem in 2013 when the finance com­mis­sioner showed her an increase in county autopsy expenses because of a greater number of deaths by gunshot, a telltale sign of a rising suicide rate (more than half of sui­cides reported in Hillsdale County from 2009 – 14 were com­mitted with a firearm). 

Suicide’s stigma is at the root of its per­pet­u­ation, Brown said. 

Brown hit a “stone wall” when she tried to start a program in 2014 to help people strug­gling with sui­cidal incli­na­tions, she said; no one wanted to talk about it. But she finally got the support of the Hillsdale Area Min­is­terial Asso­ci­ation and founded the Hillsdale County Suicide Pre­vention Coalition in January 2015 with Nichols, who pastors House of Refuge Church.

The 10-member coalition tries to fight stigma by spreading awareness through lec­tures and brochures and pro­viding trainings for people in the com­munity, including the sheriff’s department.

It also fights depression, which Nichols said is one of the main con­trib­utors to suicide. On the last Tuesday of every month, the coalition hosts a depression support group that meets at Nichols’ church. About five adults come for support each week, Nichols said.

Depression and sui­cidal thoughts usually stem from some kind of trauma, Nichols said. Often, people struggle with family or financial issues. Brown said that in 2009, after the recession, sui­cides increased.

Depression doesn’t dis­crim­inate by socio-eco­nomic status, though said Brock Lutz, a member of the suicide pre­vention coalition and director of health and wellness at Hillsdale College. Stu­dents at the college may be, on average, in better financial straits and family sit­u­a­tions than people in the local com­munity, but many still struggle with depression, though perhaps for dif­ferent reasons.

Of the stu­dents that the wellness center sees for coun­seling, about 10 percent, maybe less, have diag­nosable depression, Lutz esti­mated. In a school year, about 4 – 6 stu­dents are eval­uated for hos­pi­tal­ization. In 2005, a Hillsdale College football player com­mitted suicide, and that left an impact on the school that sparked a desire to provide more assis­tance to stu­dents, Lutz said.

Stu­dents often struggle to have the right per­spective, Lutz said, letting stress and dif­ficult cir­cum­stances weigh them down.

“Some­times stu­dents come in and think, ‘I’ve got this.’ They think that some­thing is wrong if it’s hard,” Lutz said. “The truth is, life is full of joy, and it’s also full of pain. When life is dif­ficult, we’ve got to figure out how to respond to that.”

Depression weighs on youth in Hillsdale’s public schools, too. In a 2015 survey con­ducted by Youth Oppor­tu­nities Unlimited Through Hillsdale (YOUTH) at nine schools in the county, 8th- and 11th-graders reported depression to be one of the top five issues impacting them most. The other issues were bul­lying, pressure to achieve, low self-esteem, and not fitting in.

In the 2017 – 18 school year, 50 Hillsdale County 9th- and 11th-graders reported that they had attempted suicide in the past year in an online survey from the Michigan Profile for Healthy Youth. Twenty-one said they had to receive medical treatment because of their attempts.

Reports allow The Hillsdale County Com­munity Foun­dation to be helpful to stu­dents, said Amber Yoder, director of com­munity engagement at HCCF, in an email. Last October, in the Hillsdale College Roche Complex’s bas­ketball court, YOUTH hosted mental-health speaker Mike Veny to kick off its #wontbe­silent social media cam­paign and peer-to-peer support system for students. 

At this point, one of the biggest chal­lenges to success in fighting suicide is a stub­bornness to address the issue in the com­munity, Brown said. People tell her she’ll never be able to make a dif­ference; there will always be suicide.

Others, Yoder said, don’t think there’s even a problem to address.

“There are some who do not believe that mental health is a serious issue affecting young people,” Yoder said. “There is some­times an instinct to ignore it, not take it seri­ously, or to not talk about it.”

That’s hard when the coalition, and pre­vention efforts in general, need  per­sonnel most of all, Brown said. The coalition members all have other jobs; no one can devote 40-hour weeks to pre­vention efforts. 

But atti­tudes and awareness appear to be changing for the better.

Even adults came to the Veny event, and not just in the gym; the speech ran on a TV station based 70 miles away, Yoder said. It encouraged schools to create peer lis­tening teams and par­tic­ipate in trainings about helping sui­cidal people.

“[The] ripple effects of that initial pre­sen­tation have been amazing,” Yoder said. “The schools that are par­tic­i­pating in the social media cam­paign and the peer lis­tening ini­tiative have been very open and receptive to addressing the needs of young people who are strug­gling with emo­tional and mental health issues.”

At the college, the wellness center will hold 80 hours of coun­seling ses­sions per week, more than ever before, Lutz said. He’s seen demand for coun­seling rise in his seven years here — there were 2,100 visits this past school year — and he doesn’t attribute that to more unhealthful stu­dents so much as a falling stigma and greater awareness of services. 

Brown said she’s hoping to educate leaders in the town — like the sheriff’s office and the police department — on helping sui­cidal people too, if the coalition can obtain the grants it needs for training materials.

She’s opti­mistic that the town’s attitude is shifting in a way that will help shed suicide’s stigma and encourage people to reach out, aware of the resources they have.

“It used to be around here, no one talked about suicide ever,” she said. “But things are changing.”