Minnesota on Wednesday launched one of the first U.S. state databases to help people think about the unthinkable — the causes of homicides, suicides and other violent deaths.

Sorting out the means used in suicides and who commits homicides can help communities prevent them and help individuals protect themselves and their loved ones, said Dr. Brooke Cunningham, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH).

"We can better understand where and why these deaths are happening and work with our partners to develop tailored strategies to protect Minnesotans," she said.

The dashboard breaks new ground by pairing available demographic data on homicides, suicides and other violent deaths with details from law enforcement and coroner reports. The result is a composite look at when and where deaths commonly occur, and what types of events and problems precede them.

Random killings were fairly uncommon, for example, according to the dashboard. Victims were strangers to perpetrators in only 16% of homicides from 2015 through 2020 in which the relationships were known.

"I think that will surprise people because we hear often the stories of random violence and [people's concerns] that someone is just going to come down the street and attack them," said Stefan Gingerich, an MDH epidemiologist for violent deaths and suicides. "What we found, in the majority of cases, is that the victim and the offender had some sort of relationship."

The dashboard accentuates differences in the 4,515 suicides in Minnesota from 2015 to 2020, including that 78% involved men — who were far more likely to use firearms compared with women.

Health officials said the demographic differences don't imply cause and effect but could tailor prevention efforts toward people at elevated risk. The dashboard for example showed that almost 30% of women who died by suicide had recently taken antidepressants, compared with 12% of men. Among women, 39% had prior histories of suicide attempts, compared with 20% of men who died from self-harm.

While suicides increased slightly among minorities in recent years — and occurred at a disproportionate rate among American Indians — 88% involved white Minnesotans. Almost 44% of Minnesota's 824 homicide victims in that same six-year timeframe were Black. That far exceeded the percentage of Minnesotans who are Black.

Intimate partner violence preceded more than 45% of homicides involving women — who mostly died in houses or apartments — but it wasn't a leading factor in homicides involving men, according to the dashboard. Arguments or conflicts led to one in three male homicides and other crimes precipitated about one in five of these deaths.

The dashboard also provides an unprecedented public health review of violent deaths resulting from law enforcement interactions. Men died in all but two of those 76 incidents from 2015 to 2020.

The state identified 30 unintentional firearm deaths in that timeframe, and 12 involved children.

Intent couldn't be determined in 358 violent deaths — with the rate of such mysteries being highest in Minnesota's American Indian population.

Funding from the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation supported the creation of the dashboard, which will be updated annually. While much of the demographic data is provided automatically, health department workers must manually review coroner and law enforcement reports to add that information to the database.

Gingerich said it was important to make the data easy to understand and broadly available, so people could grasp the relative threats in their communities.

"There's a phrase that is becoming more common in my world, and that's 'nothing about us, without us,' " he said. "That's part of what's in play here."

Where to find help

Families can find mental health information and resources for crisis care on the National Alliance on Mental Illness Minnesota's website, namimn.org.

If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, call the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988. You can also text HOME to 741741 to connect with a Crisis Text Line counselor.