Just how common is suicide you may ask? According to the latest available data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
- In 2007, there were 34,598 reported suicide deaths in the U.S.
- Suicide is the third leading cause of death for 15-24-year-olds, and this age group accounts for 15% of all suicides nationally
Chemung County, New York in 2004-2005 was traumatized by an unthinkable reality – a cluster of teenage suicides that combined with several other incidents to rock the foundation of the rural community of approximately 85,000. The “suicide contagion” as officials referred to it, included suicides of four local middle and high school students, one teacher, and a physician, and was compounded by numerous other attempts and several other tragic student deaths by unknown causes.
In response to these devastating events, a Suicide Prevention Task Force was assembled with membership consisting of law enforcement, mental health, school districts, and several human service organizations and youth. With the support of the County Executive’s Office, protocols were developed and a Suicide Prevention Coordinator position was created to establish prevention and postvention services that included:
- Utilizing the Signs of Suicide (SOS) evidence-based prevention curriculum to help youth identify and act on the symptoms of suicide culminating in SAMHSA’s 2009 Science to Service award;
- Training key first-contact adults in the school and community to increase the chance that a crisis will be recognized and referred for timely intervention;
- Engaging local high school students in the use of Sources of Strength as a peer led model that teaches students the importance of identifying natural supports;
- Using the SafeTALK and ASIST curricula, published by Livingworks Education, Inc., as mechanisms to move towards a suicide alert community;
- Partnering with law enforcement, school districts and national speakers to establish a coordinated mechanism for future community responses to attempts and completions;
- Putting assessment tools such as the PHQ-9 in the hands of primary care physicians;
- Collaborating with local school districts to put copies of a L. T. Kodzo’s Locker 572 in the hands of staff and students alike to open the dialogue about the importance of being an active advocate for ending bullying and suicide; and
- Creating a community wide “Walk a Mile in My Shoes” suicide prevention event to raise awareness and rally community support for those affected by suicide.
“Walk a Mile in My Shoes” has matured from its humble grass roots into an important initiative in the region highlighting the impact that suicide can have on all of us. Designed to raise awareness around the prevalence and preventability of suicide, the event has grown significantly over the past seven years, with the 2011 event drawing over 1,900 participants. In addition, corporations and the faith-based community have joined the walk; participate in various trainings, and out of this collective desire to spread a message of hope, the Glad Tidings created the i-Matter festival as a faith-based concert with positive suicide prevention message.
The impact of our community’s efforts has been significant. The Signs of Suicide initiative, for example, assesses students for: 1) potential risks; and 2) their abilities to identify and intervene on behalf of others. Of the 1037 evaluations completed in 2009, 643 students (62%) indicated that they “have a better idea how to help” a friend or how to access help for themselves. In addition, over 275 adults, such as teachers, physicians, parents have completed training in the Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) curriculum. Similarly, over 1,500 community members have completed the Suicide Alertness for Everyone (SafeTALK) curriculum.
Always taking suicide seriously is extremely important, and can save a life, but how do we know when someone is suicidal vs. looking for attention?
- Developing a suicide alert community is not only a tremendous place to start, but it is consistent with the 1999 Surgeon General’s recommendation for addressing suicide prevention. This can be accomplished by attending trainings such as QPR, safeTALK or ASIST as many communities across the nation offer these or similar trainings. (qprinstitute.com/programs.html or www.livingworks.net/training/map)
- Recognizing signs/symptoms, or what Living Works refers to as “invitations” can be the first step in trying to identify if someone is suicidal, as many individuals who speak of suicide have often not decided if they in fact want to act on such thoughts.
- To recognize such “invitations,” be aware of an individual’s level of sadness or despair, helpless and hopelessness, anger, anxiety, difficulty concentrating, or loss of pleasure, as well as such things as isolation, increased substance use, or tardiness… or as the American Association of Suicidology has indicated in their mnemonic:
S Substance Abuse
M Mood Changes
If someone conveys a sense of a suicidal threat, we should respond by seeking an emergent professional response:
- Begin by contacting a suicide hotline, the police, or simply calling 911. If on Facebook, type “suicide” in the Help Center section;
- Be an active listener by allowing them the opportunity to talk about anything that is on their mind without reacting or trying to convince them to change their mind;
- Comfort can be provided in the reassurance of your voice and by your presence alone until help arrives.
However, the signs/symptoms leading up to a completed suicide can often go unnoticed. On any given day, most of our lives can certainly seem hectic with day to day demands, pressures of responsibilities in school or work; family needs; finances… All of which can become overwhelming at times. Therefore, noticing that someone may be suicidal can present challenges. This can be further complicated by an inherent avoidance when suicide may be the farthest idea from our minds or worse yet, we may fear what discovering someone who is actually suicidal may mean. These examples and many more make a strong case for community wide participation in gatekeeper trainings, with a goal of establishing a community alert community that results in suicide prevention knowledge being as common as First Aid and CPR are today.
If you have doubts about how to help don’t hesitate to contact the National Suicide Prevention Helpline at 1(800)273-TALK (8255) as trained professionals are only a phone call away. For more information and helpful weblinks to other important suicide prevention organizations, visit our local suicide prevention website at www.walkamile.net.
The Chemung County Department of Mental Hygiene is located at 425 Pennsylvania Avenue, Elmira, New York 14901, (607) 737-5501.