Two years ago this month, 23-year-old Pete Jones took his own life.
His family describes Pete as having been a brilliant young man, full of promise and working towards a graduate degree at the University of Louisville Speed School of Engineering. He had a great sense of humor and loved to make his family and friends laugh.
“But he had emotions that he wasn’t able to express,” says Pete’s mother, Molly Jones. “I’m not sure why he wasn’t able to express them. Maybe it’s because he didn’t understand them. Maybe it’s because he was afraid of what would happen if he expressed them.”
Suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people up to age 24. Among youth aged 10 to 14, it is the leading cause of death, surpassing car accidents, homicides, and medical conditions.
As part of a special series on youth mental health, KET’s Connections explored the increase in suicides among young people, as well as several public awareness and prevention efforts.
The first sign that something was wrong was when Pete Jones suddenly stopped going to school.
His mother says that surprised the family because Pete had excelled at academics. As Molly Jones recounts the change, she says Pete admitted to being depressed. In fact, he said that he had felt that way his whole life. Hearing that caused Molly to wonder if Pete had tried to communicate those feelings earlier, and if the family had overlooked the signals.
“Adults and even peers, we’re programmed to try to shut that down,” Molly says. “Anything but perfect mental health is something you shun, you run from.”
Pete went into counseling with a therapist he liked, and his mother says his outlook improved dramatically.
But then he took his own life on Dec. 9, 2016.
The Rise in Youth Suicide
The suicide rate among American teens has tripled since the 1950s, according to Dr. Hatim Omar, chief of the Division of Adolescent Medicine at UK HealthCare. He attributes some of that increase to an unraveling of American social bonds in recent decades.
“Kids… used to have a support system, whether [it’s] their family, their neighbors, their relatives, the school, their friends.” Omar says. “That’s gotten destroyed.”
Girls attempt suicide more than boys do, he says, but boys are more likely to complete it. Omar explains that’s because boys tend to use more lethal means like a firearm. But with easy access to guns in America, Omar says more girls are now starting to use them in their suicide attempts as well.
The rise of the Internet is another factor in today’s higher suicide rates. Omar says that has led to cyber-bullying and harassment that can instantly spread across social media websites. And because many young people spend so much time online and engaged with other social and school activities, they’re not getting enough rest.
“We underestimate the lack of sleep,” says Omar. “When they don’t sleep well, they don’t make good decisions.”
A decrease in sleep can also lead to feelings of insecurity, low self-esteem, and even depression, according to Omar. While depression can contribute to suicidal thoughts, Omar says it’s a far smaller factor in suicide than doctors once believed.
In fact Omar says research now indicates that about 30 percent of youth suicides involve no mental health component. He says these are known as “same-day suicides” in which a young person encounters a problem at home, at school, or with a relationship partner and is unable to see any way of getting past it.
“The only thing on their mind is, I have no hope, I have no life,” Omar says.
Not Just a Mental Health Problem
“We know that individuals who are suicidal oftentimes feel like they don’t belong, and they feel like they’re a burden,” says Melinda Moore, a psychology professor at Eastern Kentucky University. Her husband took his own life 22 years ago.
Moore and Omar agree the view of youth suicide must move beyond the search for an underlying mental health issue.
“I think what we have to do is instead of seeing it as diagnostically driven, or a mental illness-driven problem, we need to see it as kind of a behavioral problem that many different people can possibly contemplate and engage in,” says Moore.
Omar says he’s been working for two decades to change the narrative around suicide from that of a mental health problem to a public health problem. He says that the problem with linking mental health and suicidal thoughts is that by the time a mental health problem is diagnosed, it may be too late to save that person’s life.
“The idea is to anticipate, not react,” says Omar.
Intervention and Prevention
Omar and Moore want to engage everyone in the work of preventing suicides, because anyone can notice when a relative, friend, colleague, or neighbor is in distress. Moore encourages people to be direct and ask if the other person is having thoughts of suicide. She says simply asking the question doesn’t put the thought of suicide into that person’s mind because they’re likely already considering it.
If a person does admit to having suicidal thoughts, then Moore says to stay with them and call for professional help. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is available 24-hours a day at 1-800-273-8255.
Among youth, Moore says it’s critical that teens have a trusted adult that they know they can confide in. Omar says youth also need to be encouraged to tell an adult if a friend is considering suicide. He tells teens that it’s better to have an angry friend than a dead one.
In his prevention efforts, Omar works directly with young people. In the Lincoln County public schools, Omar conducts screenings of every student at the start of the school year. He says they ask young people about a range of issues, including suicide, substance abuse, and sexual activity. And they tell the students that if they have any concerns or problems, that they can receive free and confidential help. Omar says the initiative has had dramatic results.
“Lincoln County, by most outcome measures, went from one of the worst counties to one of the best counties in the state,” he says. “Lincoln County was the only county with about a 50 percent reduction in suicide versus all other counties in the state that are going up.”
After Pete Jones’ suicide, his family established a foundation to publicize the issue through an annual music festival, and to provide prevention resources to young people and adults.
“What we would like to be is the step before suicide ever comes into play,” says Pete’s sister, Michelle. “So we’re proactively preventing suicides by raising awareness about it, giving young people the tools that they need to be able to express themselves, or other people the tools they need to be able to see signs in others and help them.”
Molly Jones says the foundation has given the family a purpose and a way to express their ongoing love for Pete.
“It doesn’t make it okay, but it helps gives us a way to go forward,” she says.