When someone dies by suicide, the ‘ripple effect’ is real
SNOHOMISH COUNTY — A suicide is not only a tragedy, but a contagion that can contribute to more suicides, especially among already vulnerable youth.
Eight Snohomish County youth died by suicide during the 2017/18 school year, after three suicides in the 2016/17 year and five the year before.
Only a few years ago, deaths by suicide in Mukilteo and Stanwood led to a subsequent cluster of suicides, said Wendy Burchill, who tracks youth suicides for the Snohomish Health District. The number of suicides rose to eight youth between 2014 and 2016.
Suicide was the second leading cause of death among Snohomish County youth aged 15 to 24 in 2016.
Laurie Harrison, a school psychologist with the Snohomish School District, sees beyond someone’s suicidal thoughts.
“They don’t want to die,” Harrison said, but “they’re feeling overwhelmed, isolated, alone.”
The contagion effect is real but can be difficult to measure as most attempted suicides are not completed. For every person who dies by suicide, some experts estimate at least 24 more youth attempt it. The federal government estimates among youth that for every suicide there may be as many as 100 to 200 attempts.
Nearly 11 percent of Snohomish County 10th graders who took a 2016 survey admitted to attempting suicide, as well as nearly 9 percent of eighth graders and nearly 10 percent of 12th graders.
There are many risk factors for suicide, and children are even more vulnerable to making an attempt after someone in their local or social media circles dies by suicide.
Burchill said the risk doesn’t just rise for close friends or family members. “We know now (the impact is) more like a ripple in a puddle when you toss a rock in.”
Through social media, the news of suicide spreads faster and further; and it makes the distant deaths of celebrities and online personalities feel more immediate.
Knowing someone has died by suicide “makes that a reality for kids, where, you know, something didn’t seem possible, it now seems possible,” Burchill said.
There are practical steps and relationship-building ones which can help keep youth safe and build their resilience, limiting tremendous loss after one suicide from becoming multiple suicides.
This is the “job of parents, students, society — teen suicide is a public health issue — so as faculty, staff, coaches, Boy Scouts and Girl Scout leaders, it is our job to go to them because they’re not necessarily going to come to us,” said Phyllis Alongi, clinical director of The Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide.
It can be a challenge for families, educators and others to know what’s going on with teens, at an age when peers supplant parents as confidants, conversations happen silently online and isolating can be all too easy.
Educators are well aware of suicide’s contagion effect, said Harrison, the school psychologist. During more than 30 years in the field,
she has seen concerns rise as mental illness levels now affect 20 percent of youth.
District personnel receive suicide trainings and teachers focus on social and emotional learning programs in class to build resilience among students. Counseling and support groups are available, too.
Harrison stresses that parents of children with mental health challenges should not be made to feel isolated by the stigma around mental illness. “They feel a sense of shame when they’re really trying to do the best they can,” she said. She said it’s important parents collaborate with their child’s school to inform school personnel what’s going on and what their child’s needs are.
“What’s going on” can mean any number of things. Mental illness, substance abuse, family conflict and major life transitions, including deaths and relationship breakups, all increase the risk of a suicide attempt. Loss of freedom can trigger the suicide impulse among at-risk youth too, Burchill says, from being grounded to having a cell phone or Xbox taken away, which youth may be using to maintain social connections.
A teen’s struggles can manifest in isolation, irritability, change in sleeping or eating habits, grades slipping or new attractions to media or music with themes about death. A sudden interest or loss of interest in religion, putting one’s affairs in order, posing with weapons or shying away from an activity are also concerning.
In the aftermath of a suicide, the risk only multiplies for those affected.
“Really the one thing that (keeps) them alive is any piece of hope that you can give those kids,” Burchill said. “You touch base on a daily basis, say ‘I want to check in with you, I care about you and how you’re feeling today.’ That constant contact and connection with youth affected by suicide, (providing) hope and empathy, listening without judgement is very impactful,” Burchill said.
Simple steps can save lives, too: lock up guns and pills. Keeping the means away can buy time for youth experiencing suicidal impulses.
Experts emphasize that each day offers opportunities to reach out to youth and let them know they belong, and are valued and loved. Opportunities to practice building resilience and being a healing presence in crisis.
Many resources are available. Call the Care Crisis Line 24/7 at 1-800-584-3578, chat online anytime at www.imhurting.org or go to the Health District’s website for further information: www.snohd.org/SuicidePrevention
To raise money for suicide prevention, take part in a Sept. 29 walk at the Port of Everett’s Boxcar Park. Details available at www.tinyurl.com/Everettwalk
In observance of Suicide Prevention Month, five programs on suicide prevention and awareness are also being presented by KSER 90.7 FM radio and the Communities of Color Coalition in its weekly series, “Color Commentary.”
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