SEAVIEW - The news that a 16-year-old Seaview girl took her own life on Wednesday, Nov. 13 was tragic in itself. But when added to the list of other Peninsula youths who have taken their own lives in recent months, it's even more tragic and raises red flags for the local school district and mental health professionals.
Her death was preceded by a 19-year-old Ilwaco girl who took her own life on Sept. 12, and also by a 22-year-old Seaview man took his own life on Aug. 22. This makes three youth suicides in less than three months on the Peninsula.
According to Ilwaco Jr./Sr. High School Assistant Principal Todd Carper, he was shocked by last Wednesday's news of another suicide on the Peninsula.
"It's a feeling of senselessness," said Carper. "I would think that there is a need for more education on the issue. I would say on the Peninsula we are lacking in that."
Carper said he wasn't critical of the counselors at IHS, but said that it seems difficult getting the appropriate care and help for young people who are very troubled. He said some IHS teaching staff has had a lot of training, while some haven't had much. He said the IHS counseling staff is very qualified to recognize depression and to respond, but that the counseling staff only includes a full-time counselor and another that comes to the school two days a week.
"There could be more within the school district," said Carper. "I'd like there to be more. The same thing outside the school district. Obviously we've had three suicides, so there's three places that we weren't prepared for."
According to Youth Suicide Prevention Program of Washington State Director Sue Eastgard, whose office is in Seattle, it is important to not automatically look at the three suicides as a cluster of contagion or as a domino effect.
"The thing to do is to look at each one separately and try to understand the causality," said Eastgard.
High rate of suicide in WA
According to the Washington Department of Health, Washington has the 16th highest rate of teen suicides in the United States. In addition, suicide is the second leading cause of death in Washington for youths age 15 to 24. Only unintentional injury accounts for more deaths.
Eastgard said the high rate of youth suicides is due, in part, to the fact that there are many isolated smaller communities in the state, such as those on the Peninsula. She said the isolation, unfortunately, goes hand-in-hand with lack of mental health resources and counseling resources.
"So, part of what happens in our Pacific Northwest has to do with people feeling isolated and disenfranchised," said Eastgard. "Also, it's a long way from places like Long Beach to help when, sometimes, people need it. That's just the reality of what we deal with in this state."
Eastgard said that there can also be a great amount of shame associated with being depressed, being potentially suicidal and by not wanting to tell other people. She said this ties in with a "do it by yourself; pull yourself up by your bootstraps" mentality, which appears to be prevalent in the Pacific Northwest.
"The third thing I would say to you is I think that kids can feel hopeless," said Eastgard. "They can feel that whatever they are experiencing - that whatever the crisis is or the incidents that led to it - there is a sense that it is never going to get any better."
Education, education, education
According to Eastgard, the best way to counteract youth suicide is educating parents, educating teachers and educating the youths themselves about depression and the warning signs of suicide.
"Because the reality is that kids talk to each other before they talk to us as adults," said Eastgard. "So, if we work to educate young people about the warning signs and about going to get help for their friends, then we can save some of these kids' lives."
She said education about these issues includes understanding what depression and feeling suicidal means, as well as "destigmatizing" the process of getting appropriate help before it is too late. She said this is particularly true in families.
"This is about not feeling as though you are a failure as a family or as an individual if you are feeling that way, or if you have child who feels that way," said Eastgard.
According to Eastgard, knowing that there are typical warning signs that adolescents exhibit when they are feeling suicidal, it is vital for parents to face up to these signs and talk with their children.
"This is about asking a young person directly if you see the warning signs, 'Are you feeling so bad that you want to end your life?,'" said Eastgard. "We need to stop perpetuating the myth that if we talk about it, it's going to cause kids to do it."
Adolescents a close-knit group
According to Tim Gahm, the program manager for the Washington Council for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect, who has spent 25 years working with adolescents and their families, he doesn't believe that there is always a "streak" of suicides when several adolescents take their own lives. But he does point out that, as a group, adolescents are deeply affected by such acts.
Gahm said that adolescents tend to be a very close knit group, and even at times when someone is only on the periphery of a group, they can personalize suicide in a way unlike that of adults. He said that adolescents, because of a greater group consciousness, can be more profoundly affected and can personalize the death.
According to Gahm, adults can more easily process life's tragedies such as suicides. In addition, he said it is critical for adults to realize that adolescents are not always fully aware of the finality of death.
"The concept of mortality is something that we become more progressively aware of with age," said Gahm. "Adolescents might not be so aware of that, and may be thinking more of what the response would be from friends or those who knew them, rather that this could be a final act."
Gahm said these acts or gestures by adolescents are not always intentional, but are done rather to let the world know that they are suffering and that they have a problem.
"Sometimes death is an accidental result of a gesture, but even a gesture is a very serious thing and should be taken very seriously by those that care about kids, such as the family, the schools, etc," said Gahm.