EAST BATON ROUGE PARISH, LA (WAFB) - The East Baton Rouge Parish coroner is perhaps used to disturbing finds, but what he uncovered in a look at 2018 concerns him. It’s an alarming statistic that’s trending nationwide: an increase in African American male suicides.
East Baton Rouge Coroner William “Beau" Clark says the annual number of suicides fluctuates between 45 to 55 cases.
“In the past year, African American males have made up about two to three of those cases,” Clark said. “In 2018, we had 14. This is a seven-fold increase.”
In a press conference Thursday, Mar. 14, Clark released his annual report for 2018. The coroner’s office investigated 3,583 deaths for the year, according to the findings.
Clark says his office started to notice an increase in suicides among African American men in September of 2018 and the reasoning, Clark says, could be multifaceted.
“It’s not just one thing. There are probably several things leading to this and then formulating the plan on how we combat that,” he said.
Clark says it’s his job to look at data and figure out how to stop this movement. It’s tough to pinpoint a cause since the age range fluctuates from teens to older men. Clark says it starts with reaching out to leaders in the African American community, touching on the mental health crisis, and creating a team to save people.
“A tool that we’ve learned and will begin to utilize it, something called the psychiatric autopsy. Much like we do an autopsy in the death investigation where we’re searching for the forensic answers, we’re going to do that by meeting with people who have lost loved ones to see if cannot find the thing or things that might have contributed to them committing suicide.”
To address the crisis in the community, Baton Rouge leaders are holding an informative session called, My Brother, You Matter. The free event is open to the public and will be held Monday, Mar. 25 from 4:30 to 6 p.m. at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center, located at 4000 Gus Young Ave. Speakers at the event include Raymond Jetson with Urban Congress on African American Males, Dr. Beau Clark, Michael Gaines, LCSW, Dr. Frank Campbell, LCSW, and Dr. Rani Whitfield.
This past year also saw a change in the rising opioid epidemic.
In 2017, there were 111 overdoses. In 2018, there were 102 overdoses, but more people died from fentanyl. In 2018, 32 people died from fentanyl, which is a three-fold increase from 2017, which saw 12 fentanyl-related deaths.
“My concern is that now we have this more powerful opioid called fentanyl that has made its way into our community and of course it’s very deadly,” Clark said. “It does the same thing as heroin can do, which is repository depression and death, but certainly leads to an issue.”
Meanwhile, the number of infant deaths related to unsafe sleeping has gone down nearly 65 percent over the last two years. In 2018, six infant deaths were related to unsafe sleeping compared to seven in 2017. Since 2016, when the Safe Sleeping Task Force was formed, the coroner’s office has given out 21 cribs to families to make sure babies sleep safely.
Unsafe sleeping environments include when babies sleep in adult beds and someone might accidentally roll over on them or when infants sleep in a crib with blankets and pillow, resulting in suffocation. Clark says that’s completely avoidable if parents follow the ABCs of safe baby sleeping: sleeping alone, on the back, and in the crib.
In 2018, Clark says his office collected nearly 250 forensic medical exams on sexual assault victims. This includes both males and females form age 12 and up. Clark hopes to implement a pediatric sexual assault program by the end of the year that will allow them to respond to all sexual assault calls, regardless of age. He says the gold standard nationwide is to have a sexual assault nurse examiner trained in the collection of forensic evidence in both adult and child victims.
Clark says it’s about “collecting good evidence and being consistent with it.”