Community, health care experts share thoughts on how to prevent further suicides among teens

When Tanya Estrada was suicidal, all she wanted to do was talk to her mom about what was happening. Instead, she didn’t for fear of getting in trouble.

Tanya was one of the 100 or so parents, teenagers and health care professionals who participated in the Suicide Prevention and Awareness Community Forum Nov. 30 hosted by the Queen Creek Town Council.

Sharon Lind, right, CEO of Banner Ironwood and Banner Goldfield medical centers, addresses the audience during the Nov. 30 Suicide Prevention and Awareness Community Forum presented Nov. 30 by the town of Queen Creek. (Independent Newspapers/Wendy Miller)

During the forum, audience members and health care experts spoke openly about suicide – especially among teens – and how to prevent it.

At their Oct. 4 regular meeting, council members unanimously approved spending $3,000 for a series of six community discussions about health and wellness issues, including suicide prevention awareness.

Creating the discussions is part of an effort made community-wide to address the growing number of youths in the Southeast Valley who have taken their lives this year.

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Since July, a total of 14 students in the Chandler, Mesa, Higley and Queen Creek school districts killed themselves.

The students were between the ages of 13 and 18, Katey McPherson, executive director of The Gurian Institute, an organization that provides advanced training for educators, therapists and parents, said.

Locally, the numbers reflect what appears to be a growing trend in both the county, state and nation.

Suicide was the second leading cause of death for young Americans between the ages of 10 and 24 in 2015, with an increase of more than 150 percent since 1981 for ages 10-14.

Maricopa County recorded 683 suicide deaths in 2016. The youngest suicide recorded was age 9. Arizona is seeing a 60 percent increase in its suicide rate compared to the rest of the country.

The number of calls Queen Creek Fire and Medical Department has received regarding suicides is trending up since last year, according to QCFMD Chief Ron Knight.

In 2016, the fire and medical department received 56 calls regarding suicides that fell in the accidental and deliberate categories.

This year’s numbers are expected to surpass that, Chief Ron Knight said during an interview, noting that his department had already received 51 calls between January and September.

While youth suicide statistics are staggering, the issue is prevalent in nearly every age group.

Numbers show that in 2014, suicide was the fourth leading cause of death for people between the ages of 35 and 44 and 45 and 54; and eighth leading cause for ages 55-64.

In Arizona, a suicide occurs every seven hours on average. Globally, 800,000 people die by suicide each year, according to the World Health Organization.

Readers looking for help should call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741.

Let’s talk

Could something as simple as open dialogue help reduce those numbers? It helped in Tanya’s case.

The teen said talking to her mother — and not being sent to a health care center — were the first steps in helping her recover.

“What we need is our parents to listen to us, not to right away send us away. I don’t that’s the way to go … when in reality all (kids who are thinking of taking his or her life) needed was their parents to be there and listen and think of ways to get through the things they’re going through,” Tanya told health care professionals during the discussion.

Treatment centers are about safety, Dr. Rena Szabo of Banner Health and a member of that night’s panel of experts, told Tanya.

“It’s a safety factor. Each individual situation is different,” Dr. Szabo said. “We don’t know you, but we care about you.”

Tanya’s mother, who also is named Tanya, told Dr. Szabo and the audience that teens today live in a subculture she did not know existed until she looked at messages on her daughter’s phone and Instagram accounts.

“I learned that my daughter spoke a different language than I did, that I’m a parent and I’m thinking as a parent and I know what’s best,” Mrs. Estrada said. “The music that she’s listening to, the lyrics day in and day out with the headphones in her ears — it began to take over her.”

Teaching parents and kids coping skills empowers them and brings them closer together, she said.

“When I took my daughter’s phone and disconnected her from social media … it took her about three months, but it almost seemed to detox her mentally and emotionally,” Mrs. Estrada said.

“That’s such a great point,” Dr. Szabo said.

She said studies indicated that after the two-hour mark being exposed to social media and electronics — whether it’s the phone, audio, visual or video games — the risk factors for suicidal ideations and attempts increases for females.

Dr. Szabo said data has not been compiled yet for males.

Parents need to communicate better and practice what they preach, Dr. Szabo said.

“We need to model that in our homes. We need to acknowledge that and start to do that kind of behavior in our homes and outside of our homes,” she said. “As a parent I can say, ‘get off the screen, get off your phone,’ but what am I doing? Checking my phone. It goes both ways.”

Mrs. Estrada said she would like to see workshops created that help empower parents to assess their children’s state of health and communicate better with them.

Increase in youth suicides

In 2014, there were 38 suicides among children in Arizona, a 53 percent increase from 2013, according to data from the Arizona Child Fatality Review Program.

The report may be viewed online at http://www.azdhs.gov/documents/prevention/womens-childrens-health/reports-fact-sheets/child-fatality-review-annual-reports/cfr-annual-report-2015.pdf.

There are a number of identifiable risk factors associated with suicide deaths, according to the report. They include:

  • •behavioral health issues and disorders, particularly mood disorders,
  • •depressant and anxiety disorders;
  • •substance use and abuse;
  • •impulsive and/or aggressive tendencies;
  • •history of trauma or abuse;
  • •major physical illnesses;
  • •family history of suicide and previous suicide attempts; and
  • •easy access to lethal means.

Social media also can contribute to the rise in suicides and suicide attempts, Mary Masellis, lead psychologist for the Queen Creek Unified School District, said this summer after a Queen Creek High School student took his life shortly before the end of the 2016-17 school year.

“What I think is happening through social media is teens are talking about suicide as an option. There is an influx of students with suicidal ideations. That’s concerning in our society, not only in Queen Creek, but also out there. Unfortunately, on social media, there are a lot who sensationalize or glamorize it,” Ms. Masellis said.

She explained suicidal ideation as having thoughts of the act of suicide being successful.

Thoughts of death, cutting and a sense of hopelessness are in line with suicide ideation, she said.
“Most significant is when they form a plan to complete a suicide,” Ms. Masellis said.

Typically, identifying a teen who is suicidal means looking for a combination of signs, Ms. Masellis said.

“A previous suicide attempt, a current shock, making an actual plan and if they have the means to complete it,” she said. “Increased use of alcohol or drugs, some form of loss, maybe a break-up with a boyfriend or girlfriend.”

Reaching out to help

While there is not one single culprit to blame for the wide-ranging preventative issue, there is an under-swell of help trying to reach as many individuals as possible.

“This is something that has continued to hit very close to home and we always wonder what we could have done differently after the fact,” Queen Creek Councilwoman Julia Wheatley said by phone during a discussion about suicide prevention at the Oct. 4 regular meeting of the Queen Creek Town Council.

‘Broken system’

Autumn Bourque, a 17-year-old senior at Queen Creek High School, said she and her peers are not getting the answers they seek regarding what the schools and health care system are doing to address the teen epidemic of suicide.

“I was raped when I was 14 on the high school campus,” said told the audience at the community forum, admitting that she then attempted to take her life.

“I was put into the hospital. Two hours later they told me to go home,” she said.

She told the health care panel she and her classmates have watched many students die during the school year.

“Many of us are here today to get answers as to what’s going on and what we can do and what you guys are doing to help us,” Autumn said.

Tim Warnock told the panel the health care system is broken. Mr. Warnock encountered issues when he brought his son, Mitchell, to a crisis care facility for help because his son was 18, the age at which the state considers him an adult and able to make his own decisions.

Mitchell killed himself at the family’s home. Mr. Warnock found his son.

“I know as a parent who 13 years ago (found my son), it’s frustrating to hear that response of ‘you have to reach out.’ Well, we were reaching out,” Mr. Warnock said. “So I’d like to bring it back to that broken system, multiple broken systems that aren’t reaching out to kids who don’t even know how or where to reach out.”

Dr. Jeff Nagy, therapist at the La Frontera Arizona, EMPACT Suicide Prevention Center, at 2474 E. Hunt Highway in San Tan Valley, agrees the system is not perfect.

However, he said it does provide help for those who are in immediate danger of harming themselves no matter what their age.

“If you call the crisis response network, we will have a therapist and an assistant come directly to your home, do an evaluation, determine what you need and what resources are available. That’s available to any age. There are no age restrictions as long as they are presenting a danger to themselves. It’s the first line of defense I would recommend,” Dr. Nagy said during an interview.

The EMPACT crisis response phone number is 602-222-9444.

Would you recognize the warning signs for someone at risk?

Some warning signs may help determine if a person is at risk for suicide, especially if the behavior is new, has increased or seems related to a painful event, loss or change.

Not everyone will exhibit the same signs. However, here are some things to look for:

  • •Talking/writing about wanting to die/kill themselves
  • •Having access/looking for a way to kill themselves
  • •Talking/writing about feeling hopeless/having no reason to live
  • •Talking/writing about feeling trapped/in unbearable pain
  • •Talking/writing about being a burden to others
  • •Increasing the use of alcohol/drugs
  • •Reckless/risky behavior
  • •Sleeping too much/too little
  • •Withdrawing/isolating themselves
  • •Talking/writing about feelings of rage/seeking revenge
  • •Extreme mood swings
  • •Getting affairs in order
  • •Saying goodbye
  • •Sudden sense of calm

Source: Banner Health Queen Creek

 

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