The Warren County Coroner’s Office saw a significant jump in its caseload in 2020.

The annual report from Warren County Coroner Kevin Kirby said his office, consisting of Kirby and five deputy coroners, worked 932 cases last year, an increase of 122 over the 2019 caseload.

Much of the jump can be attributed to the number of cremation permits signed by the coroner’s office, which totaled 526 last year, compared to 410 in 2019.

The coroner’s office was also involved in the investigation of 360 deaths by natural causes last year, an increase from 324 the previous year.

Warren County has not been spared the deadly toll of the COVID-19 pandemic, with 84 deaths recorded in the county as of Thursday.

No COVID-19 deaths show up in the coroner’s annual report, though, due to those deaths occurring primarily in hospital settings and attended on an inpatient basis.

While it may not show up in the records, the pandemic has affected how Kirby’s office approaches death investigations.

“It’s a big question mark when we go on a lot of these calls,” Kirby said. “We take the universal precautions to protect our staff, EMS and police agencies. ... One of our runners and a deputy tested positive, but we are fortunate that they’re now doing well and have no problems.”

Kirby said vehicles and equipment are regularly sanitized and deputies wear personal protective equipment on each call.

The 932 cases worked in 2020 were the most by the coroner’s office in recent years, and Kirby said population growth partially factors into the increase.

The pandemic appears to have contributed to the rise in cremations as well, Kirby said.

“I see people not being able to have funeral services as a contributing factor to the changing rate,” Kirby said. “We live in a more mobile society, and it’s easier for people to take those urns with them.”

The number of homicides in 2020 doubled over the previous year, from five to 10, while deaths from overdoses decreased, from 20 in 2019 to 15 last year.

“I hope that people have families and friends that have maybe reached out and helped these people,” Kirby said about the decline in overdose deaths. “There are more options out there for people to get help.”

Suicides in the county increased for the second consecutive year, reaching 25 in 2020, compared to 21 in 2019 and 19 in 2018.

Data recently released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed a 2.1% decrease in the U.S. suicide rate in 2019, the first decrease in two decades.

The CDC data brief, documenting mortality in the U.S., showed suicide was the 10th-leading cause of death in the nation, with suicides occurring at a rate of 13.9 per 100,000 people, down from 14.2 in 2018.

Mark Saderholm, director of service centers at LifeSkills, said the pandemic has introduced new challenges in providing care to people to prevent suicide, while also highlighting existing challenges.

“We know that this is a crisis that has been burgeoning across the country for quite a long time,” Saderholm said of what had been a growing suicide rate. “The pandemic, like everything else has affected this particular issue as well.”

Saderholm, a counselor and suicide assessment trainer, said data has shown an increased rate in suicides among middle-aged White men.

“We know that suicide is a response to psychological pain,” Saderholm said. “Loneliness, disconnection, a sense of loss ... loss of self-respect is typically a triggering factor that has been discovered in folks experiencing suicidality, and a lot of these factors are operating in this population.”

The pandemic has heightened concerns about disconnection from others and other circumstances that can adversely affect mental health.

Counselors at LifeSkills have taken to seeing patients via telehealth sessions, which Saderholm said helps eliminate barriers to accessing health care by putting clients in touch with caretakers immediately.

Stefany Vaughn Mack, a dual diagnosis therapist with LifeSkills, said it has been crucial during the pandemic to foster connections with clients when the environment requires that it be done over a screen, where Mack said clients sometimes struggle to connect emotionally and risk “Zoom burnout.”

“A lot of times we have clients say, ‘I can’t wait to see you in your office again,’ ” Mack said. “Having that space to come unload in that room means something.”

Even with the changing environment brought on by the pandemic, Mack said one of the most significant challenges experienced by people struggling with their mental health is taking the first step to get help.

“The first time someone seeks help is the most challenging,” Mack said. “I like to tell people this is a judgment-free zone, this is what you come to when you’ve done all you can do, and it’s our job to help guide you through the rest.”

A total of 38 autopsies were performed last year, according to the coroner’s report.

Other deaths recorded last year by the coroner’s office include 13 deaths in auto crashes, four undetermined, four pending autopsy/toxicology results, three deaths in motorcycle/ATV accidents, three accidental falls, one SIDS/fetal death and one farm accident.

- The LifeSkills 24-hour Crisis Line can be reached at 270-843-4357 or 800-223-8913. To reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, call 800-273-8255 or text HELLO to 741741.

– Follow courts reporter Justin Story on Twitter @jstorydailynews or visit bgdailynews.com.

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