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Lake County sees increases in suicides and overdoses, especially involving fentanyl; ‘There is still much work to be done’

Lake County News-Sun - 5/8/2024

The Lake County Coroner’s Office reported increases in suicides and overdoses in its 2023 annual report, which focused on a troubling rise in the number of overdoses stemming from fentanyl.

“These persisting upward trends emphasize the reality that there is still much work to be done in our community, especially in regards to the opioid epidemic and suicide prevention,” Coroner Jennifer Banek said in the report.

The increase in Lake County overdoes is not just a local issue, but a nationwide problem, Deputy Chief Steve Newton said. In 2023, the national overdose death rate topped 112,000 for the first time, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Lake County continues to see a “steady” increase in the number of overdoses from all illicit substances. In 2023, the office reported 135 overdose deaths, a 3% increase over 2022.

Overdoses related to fentanyl “significantly increased,” the report stated. In 2023, there were 97 such overdoses, a 5% increase from the previous year. Of the total overdose deaths, 112 were attributable to opioids, which included six opioid prescription overdoses, the report said.

The vast majority of overdose deaths were by accident, with 123 accidental overdoses recorded in 2023. Ten of the overdoses were deemed suicide, according to the report. The majority of overdose victims were between the ages of 36 to 60, with 71 reported during the year.

Demographic statistics from the coroner reveal the bulk of overdose victims were Caucasians, males, non-veterans and employed, according to the annual report. Only six overdose victims had no permanent address, Newton said.

The office saw a number of overdoses from a mix of drugs, mostly fentanyl showing up in cocaine overdoses, he said.

“Just sounding the alarm to people that these street drugs are not safe,” Newton said. “Substance-use disorder and mental health issues are a very real thing that we see tragic consequences to here in Lake County.”

In four overdose cases, the coroner’s office reported the presence of xylazine, an animal tranquilizer, along with fentanyl. Newton said this mix is concerning because xylazine cannot be counteracted by naloxone or Narcan, an over-the-counter medication that reverses opioid overdoses.

While communities battle opioid addictions locally, legal settlements with prescription painkiller manufacturers, distributors and sellers have put state and county governments in line for multi-million dollar payouts intended to help in fighting the opioid crisis.

Lake County anticipates receiving $3.9 million from the settlements over an 18-year period. Funds from the first installment were used to develop a new K-12 drug curriculum, and hire an opioid coordinator to oversee the doling out of future settlement payouts.

However, the flow of settlement money to some organizations in Illinois remains barely a trickle, the Chicago Tribune reported in April.

“Our goals are always trying to combat the preventable deaths that occur throughout the county, whether that be drug overdoses, whether that be suicides, gun violence,” Newton said. “Without working closely with our community partners, no one partner is going to see success.”

Suicides in Lake County increased by 6%, with 83 deaths in 2023. Almost half, or 48.3%, of the suicide deaths were firearm-related.

The majority of suicides investigated by the coroner’s office involved white men. The largest age group represented in suicide deaths was 45- to 64-year-olds.

“The most common way to complete suicide is by way of a handgun, emphasizing the necessity for increased access to mental health resources, de-stigmatization, and safe storage for weapons,” Banek said in the annual report.

The coroner’s office works closely with Lake County organizations such as the Suicide Prevention Task Force of Lake County, the Opioid Task Force and the Gun Violence Prevention Initiative.

In January, the coroner’s office launched two data dashboards to track the trends of overdoses and suicides throughout Lake County.

“This electronic presentation will help better illustrate where in the county we need to concentrate our efforts regarding preventable deaths,” Banek said

In the first quarter of 2024, the coroner’s office has investigated 22 suicides and 25 overdoses, according to Newton. The overdoses primarily involved fentanyl mixed with another drug, he said.

“It’s kind of a concern to see these numbers starting off as high as they are in the year,” Newton said.

chilles@chicagotribune.com

©2024 Lake County News-Sun (Lake County, Ill.). Visit at chicagotribune.com/suburbs/lake-county-news-sun. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.