This is not Suicide Awareness Week

This is not National Suicide Awareness Month and this week has not been proclaimed Suicide Prevention Week by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors. There has not been a rash of suicide reports prompting recent newspaper headlines and we have not been alerted about any suicide related incidents or possible news items. So that means this is a perfect time to start a discussion about suicide. And that is because “talk” is the number one factor that can prevent a suicide and we need to be constantly on watch.

Rollie Atkinson Column Photo

Rollie Atkinson

Suicide was once our greatest taboo topic and can still be many families’ deepest and darkest secret. But mental health professionals and others have made suicide an important topic we all can now share. We now know that suicide continues to impact many people and families we know, if not us. We know that suicide is one of our top causes of preventable death. And, we continue to learn more about the increasing rate of suicide among our teens and younger adults.

In Sonoma County, mental health services advocates have been active in recent years in helping the rest of us “talk” and better understand the early signs, causes and preventative measures and resources related to suicide. We know there were 69 suicides in our county in 2017 and that suicide deaths are increasing, not declining.

Suicide deaths have increased by 33% in the U.S. since 1999, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). A new report in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) shows that suicide is the second highest cause of death among teens and young adults. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in America, with 47,000 suicide deaths reported in 2017, half by firearms.

There is a lot to talk about regarding suicide, so we shouldn’t wait for the next Suicide Awareness Month or Day (both take place in September.) But, how and when should we talk about this once taboo topic that newspapers and others still partially hide with whispers, anonymity or awkward references to mental illness and shame? Can suicide talk lead to more suicides? Is there a best time to have the discussion and what are the right words to use? Anyway, why are suicides on the rise?  And besides just talking, what can we do to reduce the number of preventable suicide deaths?

There is a dedicated Sonoma County suicide hotline at 800-746-8181 and the local mental health services hotline is at 707-565-6900. Incidents of suicide or related mental health problems occur in all ages, income levels, ethnicity and family backgrounds. However the CDC and JAMA studies show alarming increases among younger people. For instance, suicides among girls, ages 15 to 19, have doubled since 2000. Why? Nobody is exactly sure.

“I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits all reason” since there’s almost never a single cause of suicide, said Jill Harkavy-Friedman, of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, in the JAMA report. “I don’t think there’s something you can pinpoint, but I do think a period of increased stress and a lack of a sense of security may be contributing.”

Heavy use of smart phones and social media is often blamed for causing stress, depression and anxiety. Teens are shifting their social time away from face-to-face interactions. “I do not think that is a coincidence,” Jean Twenge, a UC San Diego psychologist said in a recent Los Angeles Times article. “Asking kids if they feel down or suicidal will not cause them to be down or suicidal,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to ask.”

Look for warning signs and be ready to step in or speak up. Watch for extreme mood swings, fits of rage, withdrawal, increased alcohol or drug use, sleeping too little or too much and unsolicited talk about dying or killing oneself. These are all signals that it’s time to talk. When in doubt, ask others to help too.

-Rollie Atkinson 

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