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Peers, parents, pros step up to tackle suicide discussion taboo

Published: Wednesday, May 16 2012 9:28 a.m. MDT

Amelia Earthart Elementary School Friends Group member Emily Schofield talks with Colby Wilkinson during a meeting in Provo Wednesday, May 9, 2012. The group is a peer mentor organization that helps fellow students with bullying and suicide prevention.

Jeffery Allred

Related: Educators shining a light on Utah's dark secret of suicide

Ask Karen Jordan what has been wonderful in her life in the last 23 years and she can list a bunch of joys without hesitation: Her children's marriages, the birth of 11 grandchildren, her own second marriage to the man she calls "a real treasure in my life," the adventures they shared in Florida….

The time span is important because 23 years ago, she planned how she was going to kill herself. Looking back, she thinks she had post-partum depression. At 31, she'd just had her seventh baby, she and her husband lived in a single-wide trailer and she was more than depressed. She was sure she wasn't a good mom, that she couldn't handle the task of raising seven little people, and was positive that everyone in her life would be better off without her. But while she planned in detail how she would die, she couldn't figure out how to make sure that her children wouldn't be the ones to find her. That saved her life.

She tells the story from a distance, as if the planning and self-loathing belonged to someone else. But she remembers the despondency and her certainty that her death wouldn't matter and that it might even help those around her.

Suicide is a public health issue, but not one people are comfortable discussing. In the United States, it's the 10th or 11th leading cause of death, depending on your source. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) says nearly 37,000 Americans died at their own hands in 2009, the most recent year data is available. It was the No. 4 cause of death for adults 18 to 65, No. 6 among those 5 to 14, No. 3 for those ages 15 to 24, No. 2 for those 25-34. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey said nearly 1 in 7 high school students said they seriously considered suicide in 2010. While three times as many females attempt suicide, males complete the act four times as often. In 2009, CDC said more than 374,000 people were treated for self-inflicted injuries at emergency rooms nationwide.

But suicide is a tricky topic for the media to tackle. Sometimes, reporters ignore it for fear of glorifying the act, nervous they'll trigger a copycat suicide or a "cluster," as experts call a series of suicides that share some common factor that makes it likely they were related, like location or age or a group that knew each other. Increasingly, though, experts say silence kills. If it's not talked about, people who struggle don't know it's safe to ask for help or that powerful resources are available to them.

This week, KSL and the Deseret News have teamed up to focus on suicide and prevention efforts that make a difference.

Giving it voice

Sonja Baum's father attempted suicide and his brother died at his own hand. Her nephew killed himself, too, part of a rash of suicides in northern Sanpete that took at least 14 lives over the course of about a year. Another of Baum's close relatives tried to end her own life. But through all those years and sorrows, her family spoke of suicide in hushed voices or not at all, terrified they'd "trigger" another death. Not any more. "I've learned that it's okay to talk about it. We were all afraid; we thought it would promote suicide. It's already there." There, too, though, are an "army" of people who would like nothing more than to listen and help without judging — people who want those who are suffering, like her nephew did, to choose life.

The suicide belt

Suicide prevention is a serious undertaking in Utah, which is in the midst of the suicide "belt" that runs through the Rocky Mountains. Some experts believe that states like Alaska, Montana, Wyoming and Utah — western states dominate the top 10 places in the US where suicide is most common — have higher-than-average suicide rates because they are home to vast rural areas where families cannot as easily get mental health support.

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