Reaching out to communities affected by suicide

By Kathleen Southwick

Island Forum

The news of the death of a youth by suicide in the Mercer Island community has given rise to a critical and necessary discussion on how to best prevent suicide among young people (see April 14 Reporter ``Teen death stuns community'').

Since April, three King County teenagers died by suicide. The young men were students at Mercer Island High School, Liberty High School, and Bellevue High School. The losses that people experienced stimulated many questions within each of their communities: ``How could this happen?'' and ``What can we do to prevent it in the future?'' they ask while sorting through the intense emotions and effects of losing a young person to suicide.

Teen Link, a program of Crisis Clinic, believes discussion among youth is vital regarding the issue of suicide prevention. Open communication is the only way to ensure that young people considering suicide have access to the help they need, as well as educating friends and family about warning signs.

Many people fear that talking about suicide may worsen the situation by ``pushing a youth over the edge,'' or ``planting the idea in their mind.'' Unfortunately, whether we acknowledge suicide or choose to avoid the topic altogether, youth face this issue in staggering numbers. Washington statistics (Washington State Survey of Adolescent Health Behaviors, 1995) show that 1 out of 5 teens consider suicide. Further, 1 in 10 teens actually attempt suicide. Suicide is still the second leading cause of death among youth ages 15-24 (Washington State Department of Health).

A common belief is that only certain ``types of people'' commit suicide or suffer from depression. In reality, suicide and depression reach into all groups. No particular ethnic group or financial bracket provides immunity from suicidal feelings. Vulnerable and ``at risk'' youth report much higher rates of suicide ideation. Among gay, lesbian and bisexual youth, the risk for suicide increases dramatically. Others ``at risk'' include homeless youth, academic ``high achievers'' and youth with depression or substance abuse problems (Washington State Department of Health).

Sadly, misconceptions, myths, stereotypes and other factors can cause adults and teens to overlook the warning signs associated with suicide. Without education addressing the differences between typical adolescent behavior and something more serious, it is easy to understand how these signs are missed. As a result, the families of young people who have taken their own lives are left not only grieving, but also wondering what, if anything, could have been done to prevent the tragedy. The 24-Hour Crisis Line is a resource for families who need help determining if the behaviors they observe are serious and how they can get help.

Teen Link offers the only peer-to-peer help line available to young people on Mercer Island, as well as other communities in King County.

The help line is open during the hours of 6 to 10 p.m. every evening. Trained youth volunteers offer callers an anonymous, non-judgmental, confidential space to discuss the difficult issues in their lives, get support and find appropriate community resources.

In addition, Teen Link has provided suicide prevention presentations in King County middle schools and high schools for more than eight years now. The program has been active in Eastside schools, conducting youth suicide prevention training, making the help line phone number available, and distributing free ``Where to Turn for Teens'' resource guides. Teen Link is a critical complement to existing proactive suicide prevention and education programs in the Mercer Island middle and high schools. These programs will continue in the coming year.

As the Mercer Island community and school district work to renew their efforts around suicide prevention education, Teen Link is part of the answer. Educating every teen about how to recognize the signs of depression and suicide, and most importantly, how to get help for oneself or a friend is the first step.

You can learn more about risk factors for suicide and how to help at www.crisisclinic.org.

The Teen Link Help Line can be reached at (206) 461-4922 or toll free: 1-866-TEENLINK, TDD: (206) 461-3219

The 24-Hour Crisis Line can be reached at (206) 461-3222 or toll free: 1-866-4CRISIS, TDD: (206) 461-3219

Kathleen Southwick is the executive director of King County Crisis Clinic.

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