It’s National Suicide Prevention Week and recent events again have our community focused on this painful but important issue. From where I sit, it’s clear we’re taking at least one important step: We’re talking about it.
Last Friday afternoon I was among more than two dozen people discussing the issue in a meeting at Davidson Town Hall. It included community leaders, mental health professionals, educators, clergy, students and parents – all concerned about a string of suicides at in recent years among local high school students – the most recent a 16-year-old W.A. Hough High School student two weeks ago.
Meanwhile, groups of parents are holding formal and informal meetings, students are talking and organizing, Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools counselors are planning programs, and community leaders are wondering how to publicize and coordinate the wealth of services already available to help.
What’s behind the problem? It’s impossible to pin down a single cause and for now, that’s still the question of the moment.
As one Hough parent School at Friday’s meeting put it: “It’s a new school, very high achieving. We’re all very proud of it,” she said. “But there’s something going on.”
A CMS counselor and administrator suggested that living in a high-achieving college town like Davidson adds to the pressure on kids.
And Bill Strong, a longtime North Mecklenburg High School teacher, suggested that the three-year-old school is so new that teachers there have not had time to develop the kind of strong network that exists in other schools.
A former CMS teacher in the room suggested that CMS wasn’t doing enough, and compared it to policies about sex education. “We’re not going to talk about it and hope that it doesn’t happen,” she said.
Karen Thomas, a CMS counseling administrator, said she would take concerns from Friday’s meeting back to CMS officials. She also noted that the district’s counseling capacity has been hit hard in recent years by layoffs. “Since 2009, we’ve been so leanly staffed,” she said. That has meant counselors have had to “keep focused on the things we can do.”
“Our kids need emotional support,” Ms. Thomas said. As for suicide, “We’ve got to help people know how to talk about it.”
Suicide is not just a problem in north Mecklenburg, but throughout the region and nationwide. In Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools’ 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, nearly 15 percent of CMS teens who were surveyed reported that they had considered attempting suicide, up from 11.5 percent in 2009. That’s almost 1 in 7 teens.
Actual suicide attempts also were up – to 15.3 percent of those surveyed, from 12.7 percent in 2009. Experts say those figures follow national trends pretty closely.
And though much of the focus has been on teen suicide, the problem is not limited to one age group. As Davidson Police Chief Jeanne Miller told me over the weekend, suicide isn’t just an issue among teens. In recent years, the area has seen a high number of suicides, but also among seniors and others.
At Tuesday’s Davidson Town Board meeting, Davidson Mayor John Woods said the town in recent years has had a suicide rate higher than the national average. Suicides have been all ages, and have touched many families.
So the question is, what can we to today to help? And how do we get those in need to take advantage of the services out there?
Mayor Woods was among those who convened last Friday’s meeting at Town Hall. After the meeting, he said, participants decided to form a “steering committee” that will work on suicide education and prevention.
The committee, to be chaired by local lawyer and Davidson Commissioner Jim Fuller, will include representatives of the local faith community, high school students, Davidson College officials, Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools representatives, and people from the Ada Jenkins Center, Mental Health Association, and other groups.
Friday’s meeting generated a variety of “action items,” from encouraging more town-wide discussions about suicide to training community members in suicide awareness and prevention to pushing for more training in schools.
At the schools, Mr. Strong suggested creating clearly marked “safe zones” in teachers’ or counselors’ offices, where students know they can go for help with homework – or to talk about self-destructive feelings.
Teens talking to teens is another response. Two Hough High students were at Friday’s meeting, saying they want to spread the word about the symptoms and signs of teen suicide, and to expand education among their peers about another problem: bullying.
Dr. Tom Gettelman, an administrator and counselor at Carolinas Healthcare System, told the students not to worry about what program they wind up with. “The big theme here is to make it OK to talk,” he said.
A representative from the Mental Health Association said it’s up to everyone to help prevent suicide, by following a three-step approach she called QPR – for question, persuade and refer. That’s an approach professionals and any of us can use when we’re confronted with someone contemplating suicide.
Leslie Pitt, a counselor at Davidson Counseling Associates, cautioned that even as we look for ways to help, we need to support those affect in the aftermath of a tragedy: “I think the first thing that needs to be expressed is compassion for the family that has lost a child. They need compassion and support from the community,” she said.
START WITH KIDS
Meanwhile, another community response already under way is educating kids before they hit the age when they’re less likely to talk.
At Bailey Middle School this week, counselors are working with students on education and prevention – two critical pieces of the puzzle. The week’s theme, counselor Karen Klemm says, is “Say What You Need to Say,” a line borrowed from songwriter John Mayer.
Ms. Klemm is working with several students to post signs and posters around school bearing the week’s message. “They’re all kids who have been touched by suicide in their lives,” she said.
Posters are aimed at raising awareness and include the phone number for the National Suicide hotline, 1-800-273-TALK …
In recent days, people have shared a variety of resources with us, including phone numbers and website addresses. Here are a few suggestions:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – 1-800-273-TALK (8255) (also http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/ ) Connects you with trained counselors in your area.
It’s OK 2 Ask – http://itsok2ask.com/ – Youth Suicide Prevention site
National Suicide Prevention Week website, at AFSP.org
Bailey Middle School’s counselors also have posted information for parents on their website, http://baileycounseling.cmswiki.wikispaces.net/
WEB SEMINAR WEDNESDAY
In recognition of Suicide Prevention Week Sept. 9-15, the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare is holding a free webinar, “Stories from Survivors: A Primer on Suicide Prevention” on Wednesday, Sept. 12 , 2 to 3:30 pm EDT. Participants will hear firsthand stories from suicide survivors and family members, and to learn the signs, symptoms, and risk factors of suicide
Register free at gotomeeting.com
David Boraks is the founder and editor of DavidsonNews.net and CorneliusNews.net. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.