‘When it’s someone we know’
Preventing suicide means more when it hits close to home
By John Hales
Sept. 28, 2017
March 3, 2010: “Manti family devastated by double-suicide tragedy.”
Jan. 25, 2012: “Suit claims bullying led to Ft. Green teen’s suicide.”
Feb. 19, 2015: “Gunnison Valley struggles to deal with two teen suicides in 24 hours.”
Accompanying those dates and headlines on front pages of the Sanpete Messenger were photos—among the last ones taken—of young people who had taken their own lives.
In each case, the photos were of smiling boys each of whom, at some terrible point, stopped smiling. Even before reaching adulthood, they reached points of desperation when they felt their lives were too difficult to endure.
Three dates, four families, five deaths, one horrific phenomenon. And during the past seven years, suicides like these have increased to become the No. 1 threat to the lives of Utah youth.
We’re not talking strictly about teenagers. Suicide begins to be the leading cause of death for young Utahns at the age of 10.
“This is a problem here in Utah, and we’ve got to do something about it,” says Cathy Davis, suicide prevention coordinator for the Utah State Office of Education.
Davis spoke passionately about youth suicide and how to prevent it to faculty and staff of Gunnison Valley schools on Sept. 14 in conjunction with Suicide Prevention Month in September. She gave a presentation to students at Gunnison Valley Middle School earlier in the day.
The statistics are startling. “We are currently at 40 youth suicides in Utah (for the year). We are in one of our highest years ever,” Davis said.
There are other figures.
- Utah ranks fifth in the nation for youth suicide.
- The youth suicide rate in Utah is more than double the national average.
- In a study of students in eighth, 10th and 12th grades, more than 16 percent had “seriously considered suicide” sometime in the 12 preceding months.
- Almost half of students in the study who had contemplated suicide, 7.6 percent of all respondents, reported making a suicide attempt.
- From 2010 and 2014, Utah saw a 45-percent increase in suicide rates for the 10-17 age group.
- The numbers of teen deaths caused by traffic accidents and those caused by suicide have almost exactly flip-flopped since 1999.
One could go on and on. But numbers don’t reveal everything there is to know or feel.
“We hear about deaths all the time, but when it’s someone we know—,“ Davis trailed off. She didn’t need to finish; for teachers in Gunnison schools, the wounds from the two suicides in February 2015 were still fresh.
Davis didn’t skirt around that event. She began, in fact, with a video that had been produced about that 2015 suicides. The video ended with a cousin of one of the boys saying, “I’d do anything to have him back.”
Davis’s goal was to help teachers know what to do to keep kids from ever heading to the point of no return. Her lessons for teachers are translatable and beneficial to anyone who encounters young people regularly.
In the aftermath of a suicide, Davis said, “people always ask me, ‘Why?’ And I say, ‘Do you have a couple of days?’”
There isn’t an easy answer; there isn’t even a single answer. Suicide, she says, is a multi-factorial event. “A whole bunch of factors have to be set in motion for it to happen.”
Personal characteristics, family dynamics, adverse life circumstances, environmental factors and behavioral health issues all pose risk factors.
“Do we know what are students are dealing with at any given time?” she asked. “Your kids, if you really talk to them, will tell you, ‘Be involved in my life.’ They may say otherwise, but they really want you to be involved.”
That includes talking about suicide. “What is it about suicide that makes it a hot potato for all of us? Why is it so uncomfortable to talk about it?” she asked.
Yet talk about it we must, she emphasized. “Bringing up the subject of suicide and discussing it openly is one of the most helpful things you can do.”
She advised educators to take young people in stress or crisis seriously, and not discount their concerns or emotions.
Davis offered several keys to prevention of youth suicides:
- While to adults, the problems of adolescence may seem trivial, they are the biggest problems the adolescent has encountered in his or her life.
Every person has a “timeline,” Davis said. While the adult timeline looks back over several decades, a child’s is a matter of years; do not expect him or her to have an adult’s perspective.
- Avoid arguing with adolescents about their choices. In a hard moment, “that doesn’t matter at the time.”
- There might be a tendency to say, “Oh, all that kid wants is attention.” But rather than pooh-poohing, Davis says, “give that kid attention, because you’ve got to figure out what’s really going on with them.”
- Remember: They are young, they are impulsive, they are dealing with all kinds of emotions and feelings that are new to them.
- As you talk to young people, give them, and yourself, permission to be human. “You don’t have to be the expert or have all the answers,” Davis says. Sometimes, just listening can be enough. “Sometimes, we just have to give kids time to decompress.”
- Acknowledge when you are seeing signs of depression or suicide. “Let the student know that you care about them, and you can help,” Davis says.
A troubling feature of today’s youth, she said, and a problem society must begin recognizing and addressing, is increased mental illness.
“One in five adolescents have a diagnosable mental health disorder,” Davis said.
People begin dealing with depression at ever younger ages, she said. “A lot of our kids are walking around full of anxiety, and they don’t have what they need” in terms of care or service.
Education, health and public policy officials and institutions are tackling the problem with a sense of urgency, she said.
Just as the Utah Department of Transportation launched its “Zero Fatalities” campaign several years ago, Davis and others recognize that even one suicide is one too many.
Davis urged teachers, and, by extension, everyone, to remember: “Every child in your classroom is someone’s entire world.”
Warning signs of suicide:
• Withdrawing from, or changing in, social connections or situations
• Talking about or making plans for suicide
• Expressing hopelessness about the future
• Displaying severe, overwhelming emotional pain or distress
• Showing worrisome behaviors or marked changes in behavior
• Changes in sleep
Myths about suicide:
MYTH: Talking to young people about suicide, or asking them if they are suicidal, is risky because it might put the idea in their head.
FACT: “It’s already there,” says Cathy Davis, suicide prevention coordinator with the Utah State Office of Education. “Bringing up the subject of suicide and discussing it openly is one of the most helpful things you can do.”
MYTH: If a someone is determined to kill himself or herself, there isn’t much that can be done to stop the person.
FACT: “Even the most severely depressed person has mixed feelings about death, wavering until the very last moment between wanting to live and wanting to die,” Davis says. “Most suicidal people do not want death; they want the pain to stop.”
MYTH: Kids are not depressed but are just dealing with the emotional turmoil of growing up.
FACT: Depression is not an attitude but a serious health disorder, Davis says. “We’re having kids deal with depression at younger and younger ages.”
If you or someone you know is suicidal:
Safe UT app
Download the Safe UT ap from the Google or Apple ap store, Ap will enable you to call or text an on-call clinician at the University of Utah 24 hours per day.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Most calls from Utah answered by University of Utah clinicians
Central Utah Counseling Center Crisis Line:
Calls routed to counseling center clinicians in Sanpete County
Editor’s Note: The Sanpete Messenger is running the following story in connection with National Suicide Prevention Month in September.