Mental health advocates are urging parents to watch for suicide warning signs as school lets out for summer.
“The first thing that we have to do is be okay and comfortable with even saying the word suicide,” said Kevin McGuire, co-chair of the Johnson County Suicide Prevention Coalition told the crowd gathered Tuesday for a panel discussion on mental health.
The Johnson County Suicide Prevention Coalition, an extension of Johnson County Mental Health Center, is trying to be proactive after five teen suicides in 2017 and the three earlier this year. The beginning of summer can be a stressful time.
“Families are adjusting to new schedules that oftentimes puts kids in a position to be around less eyes and ears and be alone more, and maybe not have as many strong connections as if they were at school,” coalition chair Joe Cordalski said.
McGuire, a team leader for the mobile crisis response team, says one of the warning signs is a deviation from standard behavior, which can be harder to identify in the summer when routines change.
But despite seasonal trends, a more troubling trend is emerging overall.
Data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in March shows the suicide rate among young people between the ages of 10 and 17 increased 70 percent between 2006 to 2016. In Kansas, the suicide rate is higher than the national average and highest in Johnson County.
“We do have a problem with suicide in our community,” Shayla Sullivant, a child psychiatrist at Children’s Mercy, who focuses on suicide prevention, said. “Both Kansas and Missouri have higher-than-the-national-average rate of completed suicide for young people, so this is a very real problem in the heartland.”
About 50 people turned out for the panel, which touched on media portrayals of suicide, local resources and ways to talk with teens on the topic. Sullivant discussed ‘means prevention,’ a proven method for stopping teen suicide by limiting and securing an adolescent’s access to guns and medication in the home
A common thread throughout the discussion was debunking the myth that talking about teen suicide will lead to it. Sullivant emphasized that in order to stop the upward trend the community is experiencing, asking teenagers about suicide is an important first step.
“It is really important for parents to understand that it is safe to ask your kid, ‘Have you ever thought about wanting to end your life?’” Sullivant said. “That doesn’t increase risk, it increases the chance that they are going to talk to us about it. I think parents should go home from here feeling empowered by that knowledge.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts, please call 1-800-273-TALK (8225), or text HELLO to 741741.
Sophia Tulp is a KCUR news intern. Follow her on Twitter @sophia_tulp.