Suicide talk helps separate myth from fact as Steamboat schools tackle subject
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — As suicide has become the nation’s second leading cause of death for 15- to 24-year-olds, schools across the nation, including in Steamboat Springs, are attempting to discuss the issue more as a means of preventing it.
Tuesday’s Eat. Chat. Parent. topic at Steamboat Springs High School addressed suicide with a documentary that interviewed suicide survivors. Parents and community members were then able to dig deeper on the topic with a panel of local mental health workers.
Eat. Chat. Parent. is becoming a school tool to encourage families and communities to dialogue about tough topics.
One parent asked the panel about what teenagers should do when their friends talk about wanting to kill themselves, but then begs them not to tell anyone. All the panelists agreed on the same approach.
“I let them know it’s a secret you never want to keep,” said Gina Toothaker, program director at Mind Springs Health in Steamboat. “It’s better to have a mad friend than a dead friend.”
High School Counselor Donna Neas told the audience that in every case she’s helped such friends of suicidal teenagers, every student and parent came back to thank that friend for the intervention.
Another parent pointed out that many of the people in the suicide documentary had suffered great abuse. Panelists said tragic circumstances can be a cause of suicidal thoughts, but causes can vary from mental illness to sensitivity to the surrounding environment, and panelists said even one embarrassing moment can lead to thoughts of wanting to die.
Myth No. 1: Asking someone about suicide will cause him/her to be suicidal.
Fact: You’re not encouraging suicide if you ask if they’re suicidal. That’s a myth. When people talk about it more, they’ll find support.
— Carolyne Maul, LPC, Steamboat Springs
Myth No. 2: Depression causes all suicides.
Fact: On average, 129 Americans die each day from suicide. While depression is the most common condition associated with suicide, it occurs most often when stressors and health issues converge to create an experience of hopelessness and despair. This could include anxiety and substance abuse, etc. Yet, it’s important to note that most people who actively manage their mental health conditions go on to engage in life.
— American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, afsp.org
Myth No. 3: Most suicides happen suddenly without warning.
Fact: No. Verbal or behavioral warning signs precede most suicides, but those individuals may only show warning signs to those closest to them.
— National Alliance on Mental Illness, nami.org
Myth No. 4: Suicides occur most frequently during holidays.
Fact: CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics reports that the suicide rate is, in fact, the lowest in December. The rate peaks in the spring and the fall. This pattern has not changed in recent years. The holiday suicide myth supports misinformation about suicide that might ultimately hamper prevention efforts.
— Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cdc.gov
“There are so many pathways to suicide, but a common thread is hopelessness,” said Meghan Francone, suicide prevention coordinator for Moffat County.
Toothaker also said there’s a tendency to link suicide with depression, but she said chronic anxiety is “just as much connected to suicide.”
The high school has been proactive in breaking up the stigma of talking about suicide. Three years ago, the school brought in Mindy Marriott of local nonprofit Reaching Everyone Preventing Suicide to address freshmen in their health classes.
Every year, Marriott shows freshmen the short documentary “Not Alone,” produced by teenagers who watched six of their fellow students kill themselves in the same year. Students are then able to follow up with questions and discussion.
“After that, I hand out a survey, and it allows me to gather data on what the kids are feeling and what the community needs,” Marriott said. “It also gives them an opportunity to reach out in a confidential way.”
Marriott’s efforts are having an impact. She recently started a youth suicide prevention group, which is gaining more followers every day. They try to meet at Johnny B. Good’s Diner downtown for free ice cream shakes and healthy discussions once a month.
There’s also an adult suicide prevention group that meets at the Respite House at 6:30 p.m. every second Wednesday.
Reaching Everyone Preventing Suicide also provides five, free counseling sessions to anyone needing crisis intervention for suicidal thoughts, anxiety and even bullying. It also helps suicide victims after they leave the hospital with follow-up visits and safety plans. Marriott said the organization has gone $6,000 over budget this year helping clients through their crises.
“It’s a great program, and we need more volunteers,” Marriott said.
Some audience members asked about whether young children with suicidal thoughts would always have those thoughts. The counselors on hand explained that in some cases they would.
“They may always think it’s an option,” said Carolune Maul, a therapist hired by the school district under a suicide prevention grant. “But we retrain their thought process and help that client find his reason to live and focus on that. We’re building up their coping skills and building up their reasons to live.”
Frances Hohl is a contributing writer for Steamboat Pilot & Today.
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