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Take Care: Increased youth suicide rates stress need for open dialogue

Editor’s Note: In recognition of Mental Health Awareness Month, this is Part 3 of a month-long series centering around the many facets of mental health from community, to crime, to survivor stories, and those left behind. Read Part 2, “Take Care: Addressing the intersectionality between crime, mental illness,” here.

Suicide is one of the leading causes of death in the United States, yet it’s still often discussed in whispers and behind closed doors due to the stigma around suicide.

In 2022, 49,000 people died by suicide in the U.S., according to the CDC. That equates to about one person dying by suicide every 11 minutes.

Del Quest, Lane County Public Health suicide prevention coordinator, said, “fear is often a big barrier” when it comes to having conversations about suicide. But that does not change the fact that suicide is a serious public health problem.

According to the CDC, suicide was the second leading cause of death in 2022 for people aged 10-24 and 20-34; and while people aged 10-24 only made up 15% of the people who died by suicide, the suicide rate for that age range has increased by 52.2% between 2000-2021.

A 2023 National Library of Medicine study concluded that, “with youth suicide of increasing concern, it is critical for mental health providers, suicide experts, and researchers to find ways to support school-based youth suicide prevention programming.”

Adi’s Act

Ever since SB 52, more commonly known as Adi’s Act, passed in 2019, all school districts in Oregon have been required to have a suicide prevention plan to address youth suicide. The 2019 bill is named in memory of Adi Staub, a high school student who died by suicide in 2017.

Quest assisted 11 of the 16 Lane County school districts in developing these plans. Each district followed a similar process to create its manuals, but Quest said each plan acknowledges the district’s unique needs based on what resources are accessible within the district and nearby community.

According to Quest, the requirement for school districts to have suicide prevention plans has allowed for more conversations on the topic to happen naturally.

“The bottom line for me is always that … (youth are) way more prepared to talk about big things, like suicide, than adults want to give them credit for,” Quest said. “I think we need to follow their lead on that. We need to listen and help them get what they want and what they need and not be afraid to talk to them about it.”

Johanna Louie, Suicide Is Different co-founder, recognized that over communicating may be the best way to connect with someone struggling with suicidal ideation. Nobody can read minds, and it’s important to show extra consideration and affection – especially when having a heavy conversation.

“It’s important to talk about suicide,” Louie said. “It’s important to talk about mental health. It’s important to talk about how someone is doing.”

Suicide Is Different is an online resource for people who are supporting someone who is suicidal. The website offers a free toolkit with modules that cover myths about suicide, setting boundaries, how to navigate tough conversations, and more. Suicide Is Different is not a substitute for clinical treatment or crisis intervention, but it is a useful, research-based resource.

Sources of Strength

Over 20 schools within Lane County have also implemented Sources of Strength: a peer-driven, student-centered program which provides students and staff with resources and education on mental health and suicide prevention.

Sources of Strength was founded in North Dakota in 1998, but it made its Oregon debut in 2016 at South Albany High School and entered Lane County in 2018 in the Bethel School District.

According to Lane County school health program coordinator Marissa Lovell, Sources of Strength is “founded in social norms and social network theory.” Essentially, after receiving 4-6 hour training, school staff invite “influential students” who stretch to all corners of school culture to join the program. Assembling a group of students who run in different social circles allows the program’s message to spread far and wide through student-led, interactive campaigns that range from mental health podcasts to visual art displays.

According to statewide survey data collected by the University of Oregon and Matchstick Consulting, after attending a Sources of Strength training, students reported that they felt confident or very confident they could:

• Intervene with a suicidal friend (68%)

• Plan messaging campaigns for their school (74%)

• Connect a struggling friend to an adult (80%)

Lovell made it clear, though, that students are not expected to act as “mini-therapists or counselors.” Students are to act as the connector between a struggling peer and a trained adult.

Mandated reporters

These trained adults, if they are school employees, are also mandated reporters: people who have a legal obligation to report instances or suspicions of child abuse to Oregon Department of Human Services (ODHS). Mandated reporters include many other public and private officials like health care providers, law enforcement employees, attorneys, and therapists.

According to ODHS, since children often can’t or won’t speak up if they’re being abused, they rely on mandated reporters to protect them.

Ultimately, suicide is preventable. Adria Godon-Bynum, Lane County Public Health youth suicide prevention specialist on the suicide prevention team, emphasized the need for direct communication when discussing suicide with someone who may be struggling with suicidal ideation.

Tiptoeing around the issue only reinforces the false notion that conversations about suicide need to be done in the dark. Giving suicide prevention a spotlight allows for more awareness, which in time will allow for more acceptance.

“(Don’t be) afraid to talk about it and let somebody really know that you are a safe person for them to share if they are having thoughts of suicide,” Godon-Bynum said.

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