Youth Suicide Awareness Webcast Affirms Epidemic, Details Prevention Support
Update: This report was updated at 11:15 am on April 5 to clarify Connecticut youth suicide statistics from the Chief Medical Examiners office that were not initially reported as cumulative.
* * * * *
An epidemic wrapped in a pandemic.
That is how health officials participating in a March 29 webcast described the continuing escalation of suicides and suicidal ideations among youths as young as 10 years old. Newtown is not immune to the trend by any means, although the community has a better-than-average network of support available to address those who come forward or are referred by concerned friends or loved ones.
Those were among the main points that emerged from a virtual round table that included Newtown Middle School health educator Andrew Tammaro, Newtown Prevention Initiative co-chairs Maureen Crick Owen (also a local selectman) and Anna Wiedemann, and Newtown Police Youth Officer William Chapman, along with Kevin Borrup and Dr Steven C. Rogers of Connecticut Children’s Medical Center.
Watch the webcast here:
First Selectman Dan Rosenthal sat in and provided opening remarks for the informational public health event.This writer and associate editor of this newspaper, moderated.
The webcast, which is archived under the “Videos” tab on The Newtown Bee’s Facebook site and on the newspaper’s YouTube channel, ran just over an hour and was packed with perspectives and information that could have life-saving implications.
Rogers and Borrup both reminded viewers several times during the webcast that suicide is the second leading killer of American young people between the ages of 10 and 34, with more than 6,800 young lives lost during 2018 — the latest year for which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) can provide data.
Since then, the pediatric hospital colleagues said the situation has become significantly worse as the COVID-19 pandemic is further exacerbating anxiety, isolation, and other factors that are contributing to the deadly trend.
Connecticut statistics now available for 2009-2019 show that cumulatively, 72 children between the ages of 10 and 14 took their own lives, 435 between ages 15 and 19, and 675 among those age 20 to 24.
In 2019, three children age 10-14; 17 youths 15-19; and 25 young adults 20-24 committed suicide.
The discussion was framed around national news reports that emergency health workers, first responders, and educators across Connecticut and the nation are seeing significant increases in youth suicide cases, attempts, and ideation.
According to a recent report from NPR, psychiatrists and other doctors who work with children say the pandemic has created a perfect storm of stressors for kids, escalating an ongoing children’s mental health crisis after suicide rates were already escalating for almost a decade among children and youths.
Addressing Suicide Directly
Over the course of the hour, each panelist weighed in on what they see from the front lines of their respective professions and offered insight to parents, loved ones, and friends of individuals who might be affected by suicidal thoughts.
The number one point that resonated across the panel was the need to plainly and immediately address an individual who may be at risk by directly asking them if they are thinking about suicide or taking their own life.
Both Chapman and Rogers reinforced the notion that it is an uncomfortable conversation. But, they agreed mincing words or failing to use specific verbiage incorporating a direct question regarding suicide or thoughts of killing oneself gives the subject an opportunity to avoid or sidestep the truth about how they are feeling.
Several panelists also took on the issue of access to electronic devices, and how young people’s constant access to social networks and the potential for interactions on those sites appears to be playing a greater role in influencing suicidal thoughts and behaviors
Another point brought forward during the conversation was Connecticut Children’s unique practice of performing suicide screening for every child coming through their system — a protocol that Rogers said is not common in other state healthcare systems. He illustrated the escalating trend of suicidal ideations by citing intake stats between last summer and this spring that showed an increase in suicidal thoughts from 16% to nearly 22% of all young patients screened.
“That’s a massive increase in my mind, that scares me,” Rogers said.
As an attending physician with the Division of Emergency Medicine, and medical director of Emergency Behavioral Health Services at Connecticut Children’s, as well as a research scientist at Connecticut Children’s Injury Prevention Center, Rogers admitted that his system can only triage and identify these troubled young patients, then make appropriate referrals.
Borrup, who serves as executive director for the Injury Prevention Center at Connecticut Children’s Office for Community Child Health and an assistant professor in pediatrics at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine, explained why his health system felt it was critical to embrace suicide screening practices. He also shared a suicide and crisis text system for young people, who can get access to help by texting HOME to 741741.
Mobile Crisis Support
Borrup also promoted 2-1-1 Infoline, a Connecticut-based United Way project that has 24-hour live support for callers in crisis. While Rogers touted a statewide mobile crisis response system that will bring the help directly to an individual entertaining thoughts of taking their own life.
Chapman noted that the cohesive team participating in the webcast was evidence that there is a strong local and statewide network of collaborating agencies and individuals all ready to respond when they detect or hear about someone in trouble.
“I think Newtown sets a good example [making] mental health a community issue that we all need to come together on in order to make an impact,” he said.
Tammaro said he is seeing the escalation in suicidal ideation among local middle schoolers, as well as the positive impact of the district’s program to identify and respond to those students.
“At the middle [school] and at Newtown High School, we use a program called Signs Of Suicide or SOS,” he said. That program revisits the issue of depression and suicide at the 7th, 9th, and 11th grade levels and includes a brief screening as part of the curriculum.
Tammaro also mentioned the dual resources at NMS, with school system support supplemented by an in-school health clinic staffed by the Connecticut Institute for Communities.
Crick Owen, who lost a 19-year-old nephew to suicide, said she takes the risk of suicide very personally - speaking on behalf of families who share the tragic experience. She said as she listened to the panelists discussing telltale behaviors and warning signs, and recalled similar patterns with her loved one.
Through the local Suicide Prevention Initiative, Crick Owen hopes to bring the community broader access to QPR training. QPR (Question, Persuade, and Refer) Gatekeeper Training for Suicide Prevention is a one- to two-hour educational program designed to teach lay and professional “gatekeepers” the warning signs of a suicide crisis and how to respond.
Look for updates on this and other prevention and awareness efforts in The Newtown Bee and at newtownbee.com.
To view the webcast on YouTube, visit youtube.com/watch?v=siv9fwjfgge — or find it on the newspaper’s Facebook page under the “Videos” tab.