As local communities struggle with an ever-increasing rate of suicide, the question of “why?” is raised for many of us each time this tragedy occurs.
When a youth dies by suicide, our questioning becomes more desperate and the need for an answer feels more urgent. Our human nature seeks a singular solution to this question; one thing to point to that can become the focus of our response. However, suicide is complicated and there isn’t one reason to explain why someone, especially a youth, would choose this path.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death among people aged 10 to 14, and it is estimated that 12 people harm themselves for every death by suicide. Healthy Kids Colorado Survey responses from high-schoolers in La Plata, Archuleta, San Juan, Dolores and Montezuma counties reveal similarly alarming data. Approximately 14 percent of the students surveyed responded that they had made a plan about how they would attempt suicide in the previous 12 months. In attempting to get to the “why” of these distressing statistics, factors have been identified that help us better understand this phenomenon.
It is estimated that about 90 percent of individuals who die by suicide experience mental illness. Mental illness can be defined as all diagnosable mental disorders – health conditions involving significant changes in thinking, emotion and/or behavior, as well as distress and/or problems functioning in social, work, or family activities. About one in five youth ages 13 to 18 lives with a mental health condition.
Jean Twenge, a professor at San Diego State University has spent decades studying generational differences and reports that in the five years between 2010 and 2015, the number of U.S. teens who felt useless and joyless – classic symptoms of depression – surged 33 percent in large national surveys. Teen suicide attempts increased 23 percent, and the number of 13- to 18-year-olds who died by suicide jumped 31 percent. In her research to answer the “why” to these troubling statistics, Twenge identified a major change in teens’ lives compared to previous generations: the use of smartphones. Conversely, today’s teens are spending much less time interacting with friends in person.
Research indicates that socializing and being around friends and family members creates dopamine, affecting the brain’s neurotransmitters by increasing self-confidence, happiness and focus. Isolation contributes to depression and increased risk of suicide. Sadly, even when teens get together, they are often not interacting but absorbed with their phones or tablets.
Twenge found that teens who spend more time on their phones tend to get less sleep – a major risk factor for depression. Twenge gives advice for a happy adolescence based on her research: “Put down the phone, turn off the laptop, and do something – anything – that does not involve a screen. “
Another factor that may contribute to the increased rate of teen suicide is the presence of adverse childhood experiences, or ACES; stressful or traumatic events that occur in childhood, including physical and emotional abuse, household mental illness, neglect, witnessing domestic violence and others.
ACEs are strongly related to a wide range of physical and mental health problems throughout a person’s lifespan, including an increased risk of depression and suicide. ACES are identified through screening, and are reflected as a score based on how many ACES one has experienced. Even one ACE increases the risk of attempted suicide up to five times, and children with an ACE score of seven or more have a 51-fold increased risk of suicide attempts.
How does a community respond? San Juan Basin Public Health and a wide spectrum of organizations and individuals realize the dire need for action on this issue and are working in a number of ways to reduce suicide in the region.
The health department has initiated two immediate response efforts, launching the “Let’s Talk” campaign to encourage supportive communication with people struggling with mental health issues, and providing Brief Suicide Intervention Trainings throughout the community. As part of a longer-term process, the health department is forming workgroups to address various aspects of suicide prevention and response.
To those asking, “What can I do?” the health department believes that suicide prevention is everyone’s obligation. We encourage all community members to familiarize themselves with the Let’s Talk Campaign and to spread the word about ways to start the conversation around mental health. Also, anyone can receive Brief Suicide Intervention Training – call the health department to see when the next session is offered. Additionally, the agency will be looking for individuals and organizations to get involved in the community-based suicide prevention process through the workgroups being formed. Call 247-5702 for more information.
Most importantly, anyone can reach out to a friend, family member or stranger who appears to be struggling. If there is one thing that is apparent, it is that connection is the key. Reach out, connect, save a life.
Claire Ninde is director of communications at San Juan Basin Public Health. Reach her at 335-2044 or email@example.com.