The ‘S’ word

Kari Swanson


Does just the word itself make you uncomfortable?

We have to get better, as a community, as a society in talking about this word as comfortably as we are in talking about our physical health crises such as cancer or diabetes.

Physical health and mental health should not have a divide. One should not be easier to talk about than the other. But one of them is much easier and one of them, for some, is scary, unfamiliar and downright avoided by others.

The Erie News just recently reported that the number of children and teens going to Emergency Rooms with suicidal thoughts and/or attempts has doubled between 2007 and 2015. Publicly available data was used by researchers obtained from the National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey, administered by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) yearly. There were approximately 300 emergency rooms sampled and researchers were interested in the number of youth between the ages of 5 and 18 who received a diagnosis of suicidal ideation or suicide attempt each year. Suicidal ideation is the thought of harming oneself without necessarily having a plan or intent. Many people suffer from ideation without having a plan or intent to take one’s life but just simply wish they were not alive.

The study, published this past week in JAMA Pediatrics, found that the diagnosis of either ideation or attempt increased from 580,000 in 2007 to 1.12 million in 2015. The study went on to report that the average age of a child at the time of evaluation was 13 and approximately 43% of the visits were in children between 5 and 11.

This absolutely alarms me. I can say that I am not completely surprised that the statistics have gone up in the past years, but how much they have gone up does alarm me and 43% being with children between 5 and 11 scares me. I have seen in the past year, in our community alone, a drastic increase of youth as young as 7 up to 17 years of age struggle with anxiety, depression and/or contemplating not wanting to be alive.

We can certainly debate the whys of these statistics. Biological/genetic components play a big part in a person’s disposition and vulnerability to depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders. Stressors play a significant role as do a person’s coping skills, or lack of, in dealing with the stressors that present. The number of stressors that present at any one time without any assistance from others in helping to navigate these stressors can increase a person’s ideation to not want to live. Familial stressors such as financial issues in the home, parents who are arguing constantly, separating and/or divorcing raise the statistics. Youth who are not getting the professional assistance for depression, anxiety or other mood disorders certainly increase the statistics of those that may struggle with suicidal ideation or may, in fact, make an attempt to end his/her life. Social media, cyberbullying certainly adds to a person’s depression and anxiety about life in general.

Did you know that, according to the CDC, 90% of people who have died by suicide had a treatable mental health condition? Some of those people may have received some help, however, most people struggle with getting or maintaining consistent mental health treatment during their depressive episodes where suicidal ideation presents the most. Suicide is a permanent solution to a perceived insoluble problem. People are dying by their own hand to solve problems. We, as a community, as a society, need to be better problem solvers and better listeners without passing judgment.

Do you know what to do if you think someone may be struggling with thoughts of not wanting to be alive? ASK THEM. I know this is hard for some people. We are scared of the answer and we are scared we might be wrong or they might get mad at us. I would rather have an alive mad loved one than the alternative. For children, it is easier to ask them if they sometimes wish they would fall asleep and not wake up. This allows you to know that they are, indeed, struggling with something but may not necessarily want to take their own life. Most people who contemplate living are wanting the pain or the stressor to go away. They are not thinking about the people around them as much as they are about the things happening in their body, their mind and their life. Be observant to behavior changes such as mood and isolation. Be mindful of stressors such as finances, relationship losses, bullying, friendship issues, job stressors, moves, loss of freedom, the death of loved ones. Be aware of signs such as acquiring access to weapons, giving away possessions, finalizing wills or getting things in order. One of the above does not necessarily suggest that someone is contemplating dying, however, the more of each category that someone meets the more that individual may benefit from some help. Suicide generally stems from untreated depression.

I want to note that some individuals are very good at hiding their true feelings and there are those individuals who do not give clues or hints that something is happening with them. These individuals may respond that they are not suicidal when in fact they are.

This is not an easy subject for most people to comfortably talk about. The statistics from the above study show that. In 8 years the statistics for youth experiencing suicidal ideation or making an attempt to end his/her life has doubled. I am sure that the statistics for adults would be close if not higher. We have a problem. We need to be aware of each other, be there for each other, check in with each other and ask the difficult questions.

To speak to someone about how to help a loved one in a suicidal crisis or yourself call 1-800-273-8255. There is also a text line which has significantly assisted thousands of youth in receiving help for themselves or for others as we all know this is the language of youth, texting. To access that crisis text line you need to text CONNECT to 741741, and of course, it is not just for youth, anyone can text this number and get help for themselves or someone else.

Arming yourself with knowledge of what to look for and the tools to get someone the help they need when struggling in a mental health crisis is something we can all do. We can all be part of the solution.

Kari Swanson is a Master’s level clinician with 25 years of working in the mental health field. She is the founder of CORE–Choosing Openness Regarding Experiences which is a non-profit organization with the mission to provide mental health awareness and suicide prevention education to Warren County.