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Newly released numbers show that Wisconsin’s suicide rate in 2011 saw its largest single-year plunge of the past 20 years, though the significance of this change is hard to determine.

The 2011 rate was 12.6 suicides per 100,000, according to a Wisconsin Department of Health Services database. That’s down significantly from the previous year’s rate of 13.4.

However, the latest rate is in line with those from 2007-2009.

Wisconsin suicide rate, 1999-2011

Wisconsin suicides, 1999-2011

Shel Gross, director of public policy for Mental Health America of Wisconsin, an advocacy group for people with mental illness, said the 2010 rate, which was the highest in at least 20 years, was perhaps an “aberration.”

But even with the decline in 2011, the state’s suicide rate remains substantially higher than it was a decade ago.

“In the scheme of things, there are huge numbers of people dying by something that could be preventable,” Gross said.

In 2010, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism reported that a rising suicide rate could be due in part to a lagging economy and the unemployment rate. In 2011, the state’s unemployment rate declined, consistent with this theory.

Gross warned that the causes for suicide go deeper than job loss. He noted that most people who die by suicide suffer from mental illnesses that could be treated.

In that regard, Gross is heartened by recent news from Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

In the wake of the mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., as well as killings closer to home in Brookfield and Oak Creek, Walker has proposed $29 million in new state mental health spending.

Gross praised the initiative, although he worried about linking violence and mental illness. He chairs the Wisconsin Council on Mental Health, which advises the governor on mental health planning.

Shel Gross, director of public policy for Mental Health America of Wisconsin said suicide continues to be a major problem in Wisconsin that should be addressed with mental health treatment.

“We’re concerned about that connection because people with mental illness are not more violent,” Gross said. “People with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators.”

Walker, in announcing his proposal, made a similar disclaimer.

“Initially, the discussion centered on those tragedies,” Walker said, according to the Wisconsin State Journal. “But it’s really much bigger than that, it’s much broader than that, it’s not just in reaction to that. There is a tremendous need in terms of addressing mental health in our society.”

Gross stressed that there is help available for people who may be contemplating suicide, and their loved ones. The number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 800-273-TALK (8255).

For a more detailed look at Wisconsin’s suicide rate, explore our data visualization on suicides from 1999-2011.

The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism ( collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

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