– Mental-health advocates who had worried that La Crosse County was on a record suicide pace last year are relieved that their worst fears weren’t realized. But they remain unsettled that the tally of 24 county residents who took their own lives is second only to the 26 in 2014.

They also are doubling down on efforts to provide hope and light to those who are experiencing darkness and despondency that could lead to suicidal thoughts.

“We must keep the positive side that we’re making a difference,” said Judy Shoults on Onalaska, Wis., a member of the La Crosse Area Suicide Prevention Initiative, who has shared her own battle with depression in her quest to help others.

“We go on faith that we’re making a difference,” she said in an interview Thursday.

An unsolvable mystery remains in determining the number of people who might have considered suicide but opted instead to seek help through the initiative, hospitals’ behavioral heath programs and other resources.

“How many more might there have been without us?” Shoults said.

The fact that three people died to suicide last January had concerned officials, and the worry increased as the count reached 19 by early September, raising the specter of setting another devastating record.

“We were on a record pace, but thank God it didn’t keep going,” said La Crosse County medical examiner Tim Candahl.

The total included 15 men and nine women, Candahl said. The gender breakdown was similar to the previous — and record — year, when 18 men and eight women took their own lives.

For example, the method breakdown last year among men included 10 who died of gunshots, four in hangings and one overdose, compared with four women who died by overdose, and one each by hanging, drowning, poison, asphyxiation and gunshot.

The lowest number of suicides in the county in recent years was recorded in 2010, when nine people took their own lives. In 2009, 12 died, while 14 died in both 2011 and 2012.

‘Take them seriously’

Echoing the mantra of the Campaign to Change Direction, a national mental health initiative launched in La Crosse in March, Shoults exhorted people to take more interest in each other and not be afraid to talk about mental-health issues and seek help.

“If somebody says something, take them seriously,” she said. “If somebody says, ‘I’m not worth anything,’ don’t just say, ‘Of course you are’ and walk away. Instead, say, ‘Why would you say that?’ and help them try to figure it out.”

Doing so shows people that others are interested in their well-being, she said.

Although the precise causes of depression and suicide may seem elusive, Shoults suggested that social media may be part of the problem.

“With social media, we’ve gotten everybody disconnected, and we’ve got to be connected,” she said.

While talking about mental-health issues is becoming more open, the topic remains anathema to some because of its continuing stigma, she said.

Shoults agreed with the suggestion that the knee-jerk reaction to attribute incidents such as mass shootings to mental illness drives people further into isolation.

“Let’s not go right away with blaming mental illness” when other factors could be at work, she said.

People also need to take responsibility for their own mental health, as well as that of others, she said.

“If your ankle hurts, you make an appointment to have it checked,” Shoults said. “It’s the same with your mental health. Get it checked.”

If nothing else, at least call 2-1-1, the Great Rivers crisis line that provides 24-hour confidential crisis information and referrals, she said, adding that unburdening oneself to a stranger often offers a comfort not available from acquaintances.

Individuals should not be intimidated about seeking psychiatric help and, if they face delays in getting an appointment, talk to their primary physicians, she said.

“A psychiatrist scares people. Then tell your primary care physician, ‘I’m not feeling right. I’m not sleeping well. I’m not eating,’ ” so the doctors can advise them, she said.

“When I was at my lowest points, I couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Shoults said. “But my doctor saw it for me when I couldn’t.”