Thursday, March 24, 2011

Suicides In Our National Parks

I received several solid questions from a college student working on a project in relation to the study released in December 2010 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stating that the Blue Ridge Parkway had the highest number of suicides and suicide attempts of any other national park from 2003-2009.  Readers may remember other blog entries I have written on this tragic topic in December 2010.

How do you think the suicides over the past years have affected both rangers and guests of the parkway?

This is an insightful question that is not often asked.  In most incidents there is little concern for the affects of a suicide on the park employees that discover and or have to deal with the tragedy.  There are several levels of involvement by employees that can have short or long term affects.

The first are the persons that find the victim of a suicide.  During my career we had maintenance personnel, volunteers, and interpreters who found dead bodies in most instances by chance.  These employees are not often trained or mentally prepared to process the vision of dead bodies that can at times be quite gruesome.  In one instance I had two seasonals who responded to what they had been told was a disabled vehicle.  What they found was a man who had committed suicide with a hand gun.  The rest of their season was disrupted by this experience.

Then there are those that respond to such incidents and have to conduct the investigations and prepare reports and conclusions.  These individuals have to learn more about the victims, their families, relationships, and lives to confirm that what occurred was a suicide.  Dealing with family members and friends can be stressful when they question the investigative findings or attempt to hide or conceal background information.  I had one suicide case involving a prominent member of the medical community twenty years ago and I still get questioned by his friends on whether there was some doubt about the findings.

These experiences do not leave you.  Some people are better at compartmentalizing memories than others.  But they still have to come to terms with their encounters.  Some may have dreams reliving the incident or investigation.  Dealing with future multiple traumatic incidents can also manifest in how an individual reacts to future involvement in similar situations.

Luckily there have been a limited number of incidents where visitors have been directly affected by suicides.  There have been few cases where a visitor has found a victim and then once interviewed they normally leave the area and there is no follow up on what impacts the experience had on them.  I worked two investigations where a person committed suicide in front of other visitors.  We determined that they wanted their action to be viewed so their remains would be dealt with quickly.  I could not think of a more dramatic disruption of a vacation.  In other cases areas of a park may be closed to the public while the crime scene is processed.  This could inconvenience visitors for short periods.

It has been my experience that while the incident or investigation is on going your adrenalin is pumping and you are focused on problem solving and looking ahead to the next step in the process.  Once the dust has settled and you are back home is when what you have been through comes to the surface.

The National Park Service provides a program for Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD) that provides an opportunity for individuals to talk with trained peers and counselors following a serious or violent occurrence.  In many instances parks do not make enough use of this program to aid employees involved dealing with suicides and other short term investigations.

I will share the other questions and responses in later posts.

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