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Exploring the Nexus Between Mental Health Emergencies and Pedestrian Fatalities

NOTE: This article involves details of a mental health emergency and suicide rates in the United States and in Nevada specifically. If you are contemplating hurting yourself in any way, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) for help.

At the beginning of the month of June, a Nevada Highway Patrol trooper saved a woman’s life during an apparent mental health emergency. These events unfolded at a moment when the nation is wrestling with the appropriate role of police in these situations and in a year when Nevada pedestrian fatalities are again a concern.

A Close Call

On the evening of June 1, Nevada Highway Patrol troopers were dispatched to help a pedestrian in danger on the US-95 overpass over Russell Road in Las Vegas. The female individual in question was suffering from what appeared to be a mental health emergency and was clinging to the outside of the fence on the overpass. The responding officer, Trooper Rafael Rodriguez, [responded in a calm and capable manner even while “disregard[ing] his own personal safety.” [1] He slowly moved closer to the woman while consistently building a friendly rapport.  In an incredible act of heroism, Trooper Rodriguez climbed to the outside of the fence and let go with both hands in order to apply handcuffs attaching the woman’s wrists to the fence. The fire department arrived shortly thereafter, and retrieved the woman using a ladder. She was transported to a local hospital and evaluated for physical and mental health needs. No charges were filed. Trooper Rodriguez is being hailed as a local hero. He responded to the emergency quickly and appropriately and risked his own life to save another’s. [2]

Mental Health Emergencies in Nevada

Unfortunately, the United States has no lack of mental health emergencies, including instances of self-harm and suicide attempts. Suicide is the tenth-leading cause of death in the country, making it twice as frequent as homicides. Firearms are involved in half of all suicides. Among U.S. states, New York is the healthiest from a mental-health perspective, with 8.4 deaths due to intentional, self-inflicted harm per 100,000 people. Montana is the least healthy, with 29.7 deaths per 100,000. Instances of suicide increased by 25.4 percent from 1999 to 2016, with increases in every state except for Nevada. In 2017 there were approximately 1.4 million suicide attempts nationwide, resulting in almost 50,000 deaths. [3]

As noted above, Nevada was the only state to reduce its suicide rate between 1999 and 2016. However, while Nevada has been making improvements, it is still experiencing a large number of injuries and deaths as a results of suicide attempts. Although its relative position improved over the last 30 years, Nevada still has the eleventh-highest rate of suicide in the United States. Nevada’s suicide rate is nearly twice the national rate. In the state of Nevada, suicide is the eighth-leading cause of death. Among younger demographics, that statistic gets worse: suicide is the leading cause of death for Nevadans ages 12-19, and the second-leading cause of death for Nevadans ages 20-44. [4]

Mental Health Resources

There are several resources available to the one-in-twenty-five Nevada adults who are suffering from serious mental health conditions such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depression. Individuals with these diagnoses may be in danger of serious self-injury and should seek immediate professional help. Public mental health services in Nevada are administered and provided by the State of Nevada Division of Mental Health and Development Services. Substance use and addiction treatments are overseen by a separate division: the Nevada Division of Public and Behavioral Health-Substance Abuse Prevention & Treatment Agency. Medicaid provides some mental-health coverage for low-income Nevadans and can be applied for through the Nevada Health Marketplace and Access Nevada. [5]

Unfortunately, most Nevadans who could benefit from mental health services do not seek treatment. Only 32 percent of Nevadans with mental illness receive any form of treatment from either private or public providers. The other 68 percent receive no mental health treatment at all. According to an organization called Mental Health America, Nevada is ranked last among all states and Washington D.C. for providing access to mental health services. [6]

Pedestrian Safety

While the woman saved by Trooper Rodriguez was distressed and possibly suffering a mental health emergency, she was also a pedestrian who was at risk of serious injury due to her proximity to oncoming traffic. As most Nevadans are well aware, especially in the Las Vegas area where traffic abounds, pedestrian accidents oPreview Changes (opens in a new tab)ccur far too often. In 2018, over 6,000 pedestrians were killed in traffic crashes in the United States. Pedestrians account for 17 percent of all traffic fatalities. Without the protective equipment of a car surrounding their bodies, pedestrians are simply more exposed to injuries on the road. [7]

Keep yourself safe and injury-free as a pedestrian by always walking on a sidewalk or path – and this probably goes without saying, but do not travel to the outside of a fence on a freeway overpass. If no sidewalk is available, it is generally best to walk facing traffic and stay to the far side of the road, as far away from moving vehicles as possible. Cross streets at marked crosswalks when available. Be alert to drivers who may be using cell phones or wearing headphones. Try to make eye contact with drivers before attempting to cross a street in front of them, as they may not always be looking out for pedestrians. Understand that while driving drunk is dangerous, so is walking in an impaired state. Of the pedestrians killed in crashes in 2018, roughly one-third were estimated to be drunk at the time. [8]

Yet another factor in some Nevada pedestrian injuries is the existence of a mental health emergency. We lack good statistics for the number of Nevada pedestrian crashes that kill people suffering from a mental health emergency, mainly because the best evidence of such circumstances is lost with the victim. But Nevada has struggled for years to drag down its frequency of pedestrian injuries and fatalities; in 2019, pedestrian fatalities dropped by nearly 15 percent, but that still amounted to 70 lives lost. [9]

[1] https://www.reviewjournal.com/local/local-las-vegas/nevada-highway-patrol-trooper-saves-woman-on-highway-overpass-2052106

[2] https://www.ktnv.com/news/watch-nevada-highway-patrol-trooper-saves-female-from-injury-on-overpass

[3] https://www.americashealthrankings.org/explore/annual/measure/Suicide/state/NV

[4] https://nvsuicideprevention.org/facts-about-suicide

[5] https://www.rtor.org/directory/mental-health-resources-in-nevada

[6] Ibid.

[7] https://www.nhtsa.gov/pedestrian-safety/how-pedestrians-can-walk-safely

[8] ibid.

[9] https://www.nevadaappeal.com/news/government/nevada-traffic-fatalities-decrease-significantly-in-2019

Image Credit:  Paget Michael Creelman

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