When a young person commits suicide, the effects are widespread – family members, friends, teachers and classmates all feel the pain.
One South Sound community is addressing the problem head-on after several local youths ended their lives last year. A task force in the Peninsula School District has begun studying teen suicide and recently completed a survey that yielded hundreds of responses.
What group members have discovered is that their district isn’t affected by teen suicide any more than most communities around the state.
But the impacts are huge.
“When tragedies occur, we all struggle with what is the right thing to do, how to react,” school district Academic Officer Dan Gregory said.
Many people are surprised to learn that suicide is the second-leading cause of teen deaths statewide, behind accidents.
Data from the Pierce County Child Death Review Team show that between 2002 and 2011, there were 10 suicides of youth under age 18 in the Gig Harbor area, with 38 in all of Pierce County over the same time period.
Experts interviewed for this story said that even though the Peninsula numbers may appear shockingly high, the overall numbers are not statistically large enough to draw conclusions.
Data from the statewide 2010 Health Youth Survey indicate that in Pierce County, a third of all 10th-graders revealed they had suffered from depression; 18 percent said they had contemplated suicide; and 9 percent said they had made a suicide attempt.
Nearly half said they were not likely to seek help for depression.
Members of the Peninsula task force would like to change that.
Bob Anderson, who moved to Gig Harbor in 2010, is a member of the group, which includes parents, educators, mental health experts and others. Anderson’s 20-year-old son committed suicide in 1998 while living in another state.
“You don’t get over it,” he said. “You don’t want to get over it.”
Instead, he wants to educate the community about youth suicide.
Sue Eastgard, a consultant who’s retired from the statewide Youth Suicide Prevention Program, leads the task force.
The group’s recent efforts grew out of concerns directed at the Peninsula District itself. “Kids were dying, people were pointing fingers,” Eastgard said.
One mom with a teen about to enter Gig Harbor High School told district officials last spring that she was worried about sending her son into “a toxic environment.”
Now Eastgard says she’s been impressed by responses to a survey the task force recently completed.
“We got at least 100 educators, more than 100 parents and close to 200 kids,” she said.
She said educators want to know more about their district’s policies, and parents want to know about local resources to help kids. She said parents’ perception that they need to cross the Narrows bridge to obtain services in Tacoma is one barrier to getting help.
Like many parents who suffer a similar tragedy, Anderson said he never saw warning signs of suicide in his son. Neither did the young man’s friends, he said.
But he said one goal of the Peninsula group is to educate people on what some of those warning signs are.
“We all need to be better listeners,” Anderson says.
Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635
IF YOU OR SOMEONE YOU LOVE NEEDS HELP
National crisis hotline: 800-273-8255
Washington State Youth Suicide Prevention Program: www.yspp.org
Some warning signs to watch for
• Talk about feeling hopeless, having no purpose, being a burden or wanting to die.
• Increasing use of drugs or alcohol.
• Acting anxious, agitated or in a reckless manner.
• Sleeping too little or too much.
• Withdrawing or feeling isolated.
• Extreme mood swings.
• Showing rage, talking about revenge.
TASK FORCE INFORMATION
Peninsula School District Suicide Prevention Coalition facilitator Sue Eastgard: email@example.com