County Fights Youth Suicide with Education, Understanding
GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass. — Parents, educators and mental health workers met on Tuesday night to tackle the county's "last taboo" — youth suicide.
More than 20 people convened at Berkshire South Regional Community Center to gain insight on and discuss youth suicide and suicide prevention. Jenna Bronson, the center's associate director of youth programs, said Project Hope, as it is called, has been a long time coming.
"I'm hoping this will spark something, anything, and get the word out into the community," she said. "It is a hard topic to approach, but that doesn't mean you keep quiet about it. How do you even ask someone if they're thinking about killing themselves? You have to do it, and you have to know how to do it.
"This county has one of the highest suicide rates in the state, maybe the highest. You can't turn your head on that."
Indeed, the statistics are sobering, if not staggering. According to Bear McHugh, project coordinator at Berkshire Area Health Education Center, teen suicides and attempted suicides in Berkshire County have given the state cause for major concern.
"Between 2003 and 2007, we had the highest rate of nonfatal self-inflicted injury in the state and one of the highest youth suicide rates," he said. "In Western Massachusetts in 2007, there were 60 deaths by suicide. We have an average of 6.8 deaths per 100,000 people, that's three times the state average of 2.2 deaths. We wouldn't have been able to do this training without a Garrett Lee Smith Suicide Prevention Grant. Thing is, of the 27 counties that were eligible for this grant, we were one of three that got it.
"We needed it and it was clear that we needed it. We all need to put our heads together. Berkshire County needs all the help that we can come up with to deal with this problem."
One way that McHugh is dealing with the problem is by offering QPR (Question, Persuade, Refer) training to anyone in the area who has constant contact with teens and young adults. He said the training is an important first step for intervening when a young person may be contemplating suicide.
Deb Cole-Duffy of ServiceNet and Bruce Dechert of Mountainside talked about the toll of family violence and bullying on teens.
"One of the most difficult things is to even say the word suicide, especially to a friend," he said. "Teens don't go to the experts when something is wrong, they go to their friends. Now, most of the schools in the area have a protocol in place for this, but the big thing is is that it needs to work and there needs to be follow through. People really want to be out of that pain, and you'll find that they are receptive when you approach them and talk to them. The worst thing you can say is 'You're not thinking about killing yourself, are you?'"
In addition to QPR trainings and discussion forums, Bronson said collaboration between the area's youth educators and mental health and substance-abuse providers is crucial. She invited five panelists from across the county spectrum to address the issue of teen suicide and suicide prevention. One panelist, Deb Cole-Duffy, clinical director for ServiceNet of Northampton, said any sign should be taken as a warning sign.
"It is never going to make a person kill themselves if you ask them the question," she said. "I think that's what a lot of people are afraid of. The key is don't stop asking. You need to do what is comfortable for you. Your role in that moment is to listen and to make that call. You don't have to do anything that you are not comfortable doing."
Cole-Duffy said that usually in the case of a possible suicide, the first responders are either the local police or the crisis team from the Brien Center.
Dr. Siobhan McNally, a pediatrician for the Community Health Program, said the importance of that initial first step is critical to saving a life.
"There are several things that brought me here tonight," she said. "I am a pediatrician and I often find myself at the interface of family strife. I am also a mother of three young adults and I've been through the teen years and, lastly, 19 years ago this August, my brother put a gun to his head and ended his life. He was drunk and I am convinced that it was an impulsive act. We had a tough family life, but we just kind of dealt with it, but that was the last thing that I expected. Suicide is a large part of violence in general. That trajectory of violence leads to feelings of helplessness. We have to remember that these kids have learned how to hurt themselves."
Bullying is a main component of the violence that McNally addressed. Michael Miller, Berkshire South's youth intervention and prevention coordinator, said bullying is a major culprit in teens contemplating suicide.
"Thankfully not everyone who is bullied commits suicide," he said. "That said, 65 percent of kids who are bullied consider suicide and that number jumps to 90 percent when you take about LGBT kids. The harassment for them is often relentless."
Drug abuse and addiction also increases the risk for self-harm among young people. Bruce Dechert, the family program director at Mountainside (a rehab center in Canaan, Conn.) said more needs to be done on the prevention end of suicide.
"I work with a lot of families and I think that's often where we need to start," he said. "Why do we have to wait for the crisis? We need to figure out this gap between the crisis and the prevention."
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