The sixth episode in KET’s You Are Not Alone series, Suicide Prevention/Teaching Hope, takes a closer look at youth suicide, one of the most devastating current mental health concerns in the U.S. Suicide is the second leading cause of death in people ages 10-14. KET speaks with experts and families affected by suicide to understand the causes of suicide and learn about the most effective approaches people can take to help prevent it.
This program is part of KET’s Inside Youth Mental Health initiative, funded in part by grants from the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky and the Kentucky Department of Education.
One Family’s Story
The family of Jeff and Molly Jones is close-knit and loving. They celebrated the wedding of their oldest son in the fall, held at the family’s house in Louisville. During this joyous time, Molly Jones and her daughter Michelle took time to speak with KET’s Renee Shaw about their efforts to honor the memory of their son Pete, who died by suicide in December 2016 at the age of 23.
Molly Jones says that when Pete stopped going to school, where he excelled, she knew something was wrong. She asked her son to see a therapist, which he did, and for a time Pete appeared to be improving his mental wellbeing and forming a positive forward outlook on life. But a few months later, Pete took his own life suddenly, which was a shock to the entire family.
“Now I know this, because I’ve learned a lot more about suicide, I’ve learned that a lot of times suicide is a lot more compulsive,” says Michelle Jones. “And if somebody is in a crisis, a lot of times the very dangerous time can be a very short amount of time. And I think that if Pete had just got over that hump, then it would have been okay.”
The Jones family has established the Pete Jones Foundation for Depression Prevention to help other families who have young members dealing with depression and suicidal thoughts. Michelle Jones says that the foundation’s goal is preventive – to help young children at the outset of their difficulties, before they sink too deep into depression and the risk of suicide rises.
“What we would like to be is kind of the step before suicide ever comes into play,” she says. “Proactively preventing suicides by raising awareness about it, giving young people the tools they need to be able to express themselves, and giving other people the tools they need to be able to see signs in others and help them.”
Causes of Suicide and Methods of Suicide Prevention
According to Dr. Hatim Omar, MD, an adolescent medicine specialist at the University of Kentucky, about 25 to 30 percent of youth suicides are impulsive, as was Pete Jones’ suicide. Omar says that the rise in youth suicides in recent decades can be attributed to several factors, including the breakdown of family structure, an increase in social isolation and not knowing neighbors, and technological changes that enable every adolescent to spend most of their time online if they so choose.
The impulsive suicides – “same-day suicides,” according to Omar – do not have a chronic mental health component. He says they occur when a young person encounters a problem and overreacts. “For teens, most of the time, they don’t know tomorrow,” Omar says. “… they don’t have the abstract thinking ability to see that whatever happens today can be solved. So they think that their life is over because of this event.”
Omar says that, given the prevalence of impulsive suicides, the overall rise in suicide is not just a mental health problem – it’s a public health problem. He says that restricting firearm access would help drive suicide rates down for young males, and even young females. While most young women use less lethal means of attempting suicide such as pills, Omar says that over the past 12 years, there has been a rise in young girls using firearms. “That’s the scariest part,” he says.
Melinda Moore, PhD., a psychology professor at Eastern Kentucky University, is an expert at suicidology. Moore lost her husband to suicide 22 years ago and she subsequently devoted her career to helping educate people about suicide prevention. Moore agrees with Omar that limiting access to lethal means of suicide is crucial to reducing overall rates.
On a more basic level, Moore says that directly asking a person who shows signs of depression if he or she is considering suicide is very important.
“If somebody is having chest pain, we say to them, ‘Do we need to call an ambulance? Do you think you’re having a heart attack?’ We’re real comfortable saying that,” she says. “But the number one psychiatric emergency is suicidality – having thoughts of suicide. And so I think we need to get comfortable asking people if they’re having thoughts of suicide, and then not leaving them alone, getting them professional help.”
In an interview, Pulaski Co. educator Jeremy Cole, who was profiled in an earlier episode of You Are Not Alone, talks about how he puts Moore’s recommendations in practice. He reflects on his own struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts, how he’s improved with help from family and faith, and how he approaches his students who are showing signs of depression and anxiety and offers them support.
Sources of Strength
In a 2016 report by Kentucky’s Cabinet for Health and Family Services, data shows that more than 15 percent of Kentucky’s tenth graders reported having suicidal thoughts within the previous year. KET visits Butler High School in Louisville to learn about their Sources of Strength program, which promotes suicide prevention and utilizes the social networks of students to spread messages of hope and resolve.
The evidence-based program highlights eight different protective factors for suicide prevention. “Basically, it’s a resiliency program,” says Mary Wurst, health teacher at Butler High. “It helps students look at all of the different resiliency skills they can develop, the coping skills they can develop that are positive, versus when things are going difficult, turning to drugs or violence.”
In an exercise, Butler students write messages of support and encouragement and distribute them throughout the school in an organized campaign. Sources of Strength trains and relies on students to become peer leaders who are skilled at identifying fellow students who are dealing with mental health issues and then getting them help before problems escalate.
“You purposely try to go pick students in as many peer groups as possible, because a lot of times, our best peers are not who you would think they would be,” says Wurst. “They are the kids who have experienced tragedy, and because of that, they can have empathy for other students and the courage to help them.”