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Why do so many Washington state teens kill themselves?

Palmerston Burk, shown here with his mother, Kathleen Gilligan, was just 14 when he killed himself on Oct. 4, 2012. Had he lived, Gilligan said, her son would have been a graduate last month at Vashon Island High School in Washington state.
Palmerston Burk, shown here with his mother, Kathleen Gilligan, was just 14 when he killed himself on Oct. 4, 2012. Had he lived, Gilligan said, her son would have been a graduate last month at Vashon Island High School in Washington state. Courtesy of Kathleen Gilligan

When the federal government reported this month that Washington state teenagers were among the most depressed in the nation, it came as no surprise to Kathleen Gilligan.

Her son, Palmerston Burk, should have been among the graduates last month at Vashon Island High School, but he took his life nearly four years ago.

“I suspected he had bouts of depression but was terrified of it,” Gilligan said. “This is why I talk about the subject now, because I think a lot of parents are afraid of it.”

I suspected he had bouts of depression but was terrified of it.

Kathleen Gilligan, whose son took his own life at age 14

Across the U.S., 1 of every 9 adolescents aged 12 to 17 had at least one major depressive episode in the last year, according to a report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Of the 10 states with the highest rates, four were in the West: Oregon, Arizona, Utah and Washington state. Oregon ranked first, with nearly 15 percent of teens reporting major depressive episodes. Washington state ranked seventh, with 12 percent.

12 The percentage of Washington state youths aged 12-17 who reported having at least one major depressive episode

Researchers defined a major episode as a depressed mood or loss of interest or pleasure in daily activities that lasted for two weeks or more, accompanied by symptoms such as difficulty sleeping, eating or concentrating.

The issue has long been on the radar for Washington state officials, who note that the Evergreen State has had a suicide rate higher than the national average every year since 1980.

In 2014, Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill that called on the state’s Department of Health to create a suicide prevention plan for people of all ages. The state released the plan in January, when the governor also signed an executive order requiring the department to begin its implementation.

An average of two youths kill themselves every week in Washington state, with another 17 attempting suicide, according to the Youth Suicide Prevention Program in Seattle. And the state’s report found that 20 percent of the state’s 10th-graders had seriously considered suicide in the previous 12 months.

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While a wide mix of possibilities can influence suicidal behaviors, the report said the risk factors of childhood trauma, substance abuse, poverty and untreated mental health problems all were common in Washington state.

Among other things, the report called for better screening of those at risk for depression and suicide and a marketing campaign to raise public awareness.

“Directly talking about suicide will help us work against the barriers caused by stigma and solve this urgent health problem,” the Health Department said in its report.

Directly talking about suicide will help us work against the barriers caused by stigma and solve this urgent health problem.

Washington state Department of Health, in its suicide prevention plan

The number of suicides is highest in small-town and rural areas, but the story has become a familiar one most everywhere.

In Tacoma, a 13-year-old girl killed herself last year by jumping off a bridge onto Interstate 5.

At Southridge High School in Kennewick, the school year ended last month with two students killing themselves just days apart.

And the situation has become particularly acute in the Battle Ground school district in southwest Washington, where four teens died by suicide and another five tried to kill themselves in the last 18 months.

“The number of students contemplating and attempting suicide in Battle Ground is staggering,” said Republican Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, who said last week that she’s “willing to do whatever is needed” to offer her support.

The number of students contemplating and attempting suicide in Battle Ground is staggering.

Republican Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler

For starters, she said she wanted the U.S. Justice Department to approve a federal grant to pay for a second resource officer to help out the school district, which enrolls 13,500 students. Herrera Beutler said the district should have multiple officers to stay in contact with students and address their concerns as a way to head off “tragic outcomes.” The officers can help students deal with everything from bullying to isolation.

Groups seeking to head off youth suicides are now operating across the state, including in Battle Ground and Gig Harbor and in Benton, Franklin and Whatcom counties.

Joy Russell, who has helped lead the suicide prevention meetings in Battle Ground, said the community had come together, trying to build resilience in kids and train adults to be aware of suicide warning signs.

“It’s been very devastating for the community and for our kids,” said Russell, a mother of four who’s the pastor at Battle Ground’s Foursquare Church.

Are you having suicidal thoughts? You can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at 800-273-8255

Part of the suicide prevention campaign is aimed at reporters, getting them to stop saying someone “committed” suicide because it may imply a criminal act. Instead, they’re urged to say that someone “killed himself, took her own life or died by suicide,” phrases deemed to be more respectful and factual.

Many who are working to prevent suicides say the news media should resist stories on individual suicides and not describe the methods used. They warn that depressed kids are vulnerable and can be tempted to engage in copycat suicides.

“If you spend a lot of time talking about the number of suicides and the amount of depression and anxiety and all that kind of stuff, it sets in their mind a greater tendency to carry out that kind of behavior,” said Curtis Miller, the executive director of Connect Battle Ground, a coalition of more than 135 businesses and individuals working to prevent suicides. “But if you start telling stories about people who found positive friends, spirituality, healthy activities or began serving others, it gives kids more of an opportunity to grab on to those sources of strength.”

If you start telling stories about people who found positive friends, spirituality, health activities or began serving others, it gives kids more of an opportunity to grab on to those sources of strength.

Curtis Miller, Connect Battle Ground

In 2014, firearms were the leading cause of suicides in Washington state, accounting for nearly half of all deaths.

Palmerston Burk shot himself, too.

Gilligan used her son’s death to help get a new law passed in Washington state that will update firearm-safety pamphlets used by hunters, requiring them to include information on suicide awareness and prevention. The law, called the Suicide Awareness and Prevention Education for Safer Homes Act, also urges gun stores and ranges to develop similar messages.

Gilligan, 49, who now lives in West Seattle, said her son was a trained marksman who attended gun camp every summer but had never received any such warnings.

She said her son was moody but never diagnosed with depression and most likely was hiding it. She described him as a popular and tenderhearted kid who was learning to be a blacksmith, a great wrestler who liked lacrosse, football and climbing tall trees. His nickname was “The Fact Man,” a nod to his analytical skills.

Gilligan said she knew little about mental health issues and was afraid to ask her son how he felt. Now, she said, it’s time to “normalize the conversation,” getting more people to realize that mental disorders should be treated just like a twisted ankle or broken arm.

“It's something we need to be able to talk about so that kids can get the help they need,” Gilligan said.

Rob Hotakainen: 202-383-6154, @HotakainenRob

If one or more of these signs of depression persist, parents should seek help:

  • Frequent sadness, tearfulness, crying
  • Decreased interest in activities or inability to enjoy previously favorite activities
  • Hopelessness
  • Persistent boredom, low energy
  • Social isolation, poor communication
  • Low self-esteem and guilt
  • Extreme sensitivity to rejection or failure
  • Increased irritability, anger or hostility
  • Difficulty with relationships
  • Frequent complaints of physical illnesses such as headaches and stomachaches
  • Frequent absences from school or poor performance in school
  • Poor concentration
  • A major change in eating and/or sleeping patterns
  • Talk of or efforts to run away from home
  • Thoughts or expressions of suicide or self-destructive behavior

Source: Youth Suicide Prevention Program in Seattle

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