New Jersey has one of the lowest suicide rates in the nation. But the state, like the rest of the country, has experienced a steady increase since 2000, according to the New Jersey Violent Death Reporting System within the state Health Department.

In 2016, the most recent year for which statistics are available, 689 New Jersey residents died by suicide. For every suicide, there were 5.5 inpatient hospitalizations or emergency room discharges for non-fatal suicide attempts.

The data indicates medical treatment costs for suicide in New Jersey rose above $13 million for the year, but this does not factor in lost productivity costs to the state economy.

On Thursday, hundreds attended a state Department of Health Division of Mental Health and Addiction Services forum in Trenton, which focused on the importance of community involvement in preventing suicide.

According to Health Commissioner Shereef Elnahal, doctors and health care providers interact with patients every day and “we want to make sure that most if not all are screening their patients for this problem.”

“Unfortunately, 45 percent of folks who die by suicide had actually seen their doctor within a month before they’ve done that, so that is clearly a missed opportunity and a way for us to make progress.”

As New Jersey’s opioid abuse epidemic rages on, the commissioner said one very significant statistic about those who die by suicide is that “only about 10 percent have had a history of a mental health problem that has been diagnosed, but up to 76 percent had an existing substance abuse problem.”

He said it’s become clear suicide and substance abuse are very connected.

“Clearly this is a major root cause, and making sure we’re integrating care and mental health issues is important and the Department is focused on that.”

He said efforts must continue to reduce the stigma associated with suicide.

“Part of reducing stigma is being comfortable asking your loved ones how they’re doing, if they’ve thought of hurting themselves or others or killing themselves. That can be a difficult question to ask, but the more people do it, the more lives can be saved.”

He stressed when the topics of suicide and mental health are brought out of the shadows, “we have an opportunity there to bring folks into care, to understand the root causes of why they’ve thought about hurting themselves or attempted to hurt themselves.”

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You can contact reporter David Matthau at David.Matthau@townsquaremedia.com