2014 suicide rate down so far in McHenry County

Katie McKenna of Crystal Lake holds a portrait of her brother Keith outside their Crystal Lake home July 29. Katie McKenna is a survivor of her brother, Keith, who committed suicide in 2012.
Katie McKenna of Crystal Lake holds a portrait of her brother Keith outside their Crystal Lake home July 29. Katie McKenna is a survivor of her brother, Keith, who committed suicide in 2012.

During the hour-long drive to work in the morning and home in the evening, 24-year-old Katie McKenna's mind lingers on one thing every day: her big brother.

She also thinks about him during hikes through Sterne's Woods and on bike rides through nearby paths – some of their favorite things to do together before Keith McKenna, 27, committed suicide Dec. 10, 2012.

Now acutely aware of any suicide that occurs in the area, Katie McKenna said she was surprised to learn the rate of suicide has fallen in McHenry County after steadily rising for the past few years.

"When you're a survivor of it, you notice it every time it happens, so if anything, I thought it was going up," she said. "The fact that it's going down, though, I hope it has something to do with more support and resources out there."

McKenna was at her family's Crystal Lake home studying for the last three finals between her and a bachelor's degree in psychology when the doorbell rang.

"Doorbell rings, it's the cops," she recalled. "At that point, I pretty much knew because they did the whole, 'Can you get everyone else in here?'"

The news that her brother killed himself in his Bloomington apartment, of course, came as a shock. McKenna lost her best friend that day, but said she has since come to terms with the fact that it was not him, but a disease – though never medically diagnosed – that was behind his death.

In 2012, the year Keith McKenna died, leaving behind Katie, their parents and two brothers, there were 40 suicides in McHenry County. That was the highest number of suicides recorded between 2004 and 2013, according to information provided by the McHenry County Coroner's Office.

It's the hope of Johanna Gerhardt, clinical supervisor of the McHenry County Crisis Program, that 2014 will bring better news.

Through July this year, the number of people to take their own lives was 13. That number both last year and the year prior was 21.

While Gerhardt stressed one suicide always will be one too many, she said it's encouraging to see any kind of decline.

"In terms of where we are halfway through 2014, there has been a decrease," said Gerhardt, also the chairwoman of the McHenry County Suicide Task Force. "We're encouraged by the numbers. It just kind of fuels our fire."

Experts in the community have been concerned with the number of suicides in the county since an upward trend became noticeable about five or six years ago.

"I would say the increase started when the economy crashed," Gerhardt said. "That's when we started to notice a difference."

Between 2004 and 2008, the highest number of suicides in the county was 23 in 2007. Two years later, in 2009, the total number jumped to 29 and has since remained there or above.

Prompted by the peak in 2010 and comprised of mental health care professionals and survivors of suicide, the McHenry County Suicide Task Force works to spread awareness about the issue.

Through events such as remembrance vigils and organized support groups for those who have lost loved ones to suicide, Gerhardt said suicide prevention efforts have focused on promoting the importance of mental health.

"I think there's still really a stigma out there about mental health," she said.

Gerhardt's sentiments were echoed by Kelly Strand, co-facilitator of the survivors of suicide support group.

Strand, who lost her mother in 1998 to suicide, became a group facilitator 10 years ago to help other survivors cope.

While it might be difficult to pinpoint a particular reason behind the fallen rate observed thus far, Strand said she hopes it's an indicator of progress.

"That, I'm hoping, tells us that people who are suffering are getting the services they need [and] the resources they need," Strand said. "And that education about mental illness is there and hopefully some of the stigma has lightened up a little bit."

The loss of her brother still affects Katie McKenna every day, but she said the S.O.S. support group, along with Keith's last message to her, has helped her cope.

"In his note – he did leave a note behind – it said, 'P.S. Tell my sister, Katie, that I love her and I'm sorry,'" Katie said. "The fact that he did that has given me strength."

If ever faced with someone contemplating suicide, McKenna said she'd tell the person one thing:

"It'll have a bigger impact than they think," she said. "They'll think they'll die and nothing big will happen, but it will change people's lives forever."

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