The loss of any young person’s life is tragic. When suicide is the cause of death, family, friends, teachers, faith leaders and the larger community face complicated grief and all of its associated challenges in the effort to make sense of the tragedy. The loss may be experienced as a traumatic event. In the effort to manage feelings, thoughts, and beliefs about the suicide, speculation, blame, and misinformation often ensue. Therefore, the response must be sensitive, informed, and respectful. It must facilitate dialogue instead of conjecture; it must address blame and stigma; and it must create a foundation for hope, healing, and safety for all affected.
We know that the national suicide rate has been increasing for years, causing immeasurable pain, suffering, and loss to individuals, families, and entire communities. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2015, suicide was the 10th-leading cause of death overall in the United States, claiming the lives of more than 44,000 people. Suicide was the third-leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 10 and 14, and the second-leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 15 and 34. There were more than twice as many suicides (44,193) in the United States as there were homicides (17,793).
Before I became Mercer County Executive, I began my career in Human Services on the Governor’s Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse (GCADA), therefore I’m keenly aware that suicide is a complicated behavior, in most instances precipitated by an underlying mental-health issue such as depression or anxiety, combined with other complicating factors that affect the ability to think clearly and solve problems in healthy ways. It is not caused by a single life event.
We know that suicide touches all ages and backgrounds, all ethnic and racial groups. We know that some populations are at higher risk for suicidal behavior, which means we must understand risk factors, protective factors, and what we can do to recognize and respond to warning signs for suicide.
Risk factors include but are not limited to: depressive and anxiety disorders, substance use or dependence, previous suicide attempts, and conduct disorders, hopelessness, low self-esteem, social alienation and isolation, low stress and frustration tolerance, impulsivity, poor problem-solving or coping skills, perception of being a burden, interpersonal difficulties, bullying, physical, sexual or emotional abuse, risky behaviors, family history of suicide, parental mental health problems in the parent-child relationship, lack of respect and fair treatment, lack of acceptance of differences, limited mental health care, access to lethal means, and exposure to other suicides.
Protective factors include but are not limited to: emotional well-being, strong problem-solving skills, stable and predictable family and social supports, a positive school experience, a sense of connectedness and belonging, adequate academic achievement, and limited access to means of self- harm.
Warning signs include but are not limited to: expressions of hopelessness, rage, feeling trapped, withdrawal from friends and family, increased alcohol or drug use, anxiety, agitation, dramatic mood changes, and inability to experience a purpose in life.
If someone you know has threatened to hurt or kill themselves, is looking for ways to kill themselves, or is talking or writing about death, dying or suicide, get help immediately. Call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline number at 1-800-273-8255, or call 9-1-1 or go immediately to your local emergency room.
Every youth who dies by suicide is someone’s child. We must increase our efforts to prevent suicide. We must keep the conversation going. We must address stigma. We must refrain from judgment. We must take great care not to sensationalize suicide. We must educate. We must stay connected with our youth and each other. And we must be respectful and kind as we persevere in the effort to end youth suicide.
Preventing Suicide: Education and Awareness Can Save Lives By Brian M. Hughes, Mercer County Executive