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How families, communities can discuss youth suicide

March 10, 2018

COLUMBUS, Miss. (AP) — Nobody saw it coming.

That was what Drew Johnson said about a 19-year-old Lowndes County native who died by suicide last month.

Johnson, who coached the victim for a year and a half with the Caledonia Kings 18-and-under Amateur Athletic Union basketball team, said the young man “knew how to light up a room.”

“He was always extremely happy,” Johnson said. “There was a brief period when we first started the program when we didn’t have (him). It definitely was a different team before and after not just in performance but in morale. He was able to bring people around him up with him. He was a fantastic teammate and a fantastic individual.”

The student was a freshmen at Itawamba Community College when he died, leaving behind friends, family and a legacy at Caledonia High School where he played football and basketball.

“That senior group (of nearly 30), I don’t think anybody had a cross word to say about him because he was such a good teammate and a friend to him,” former assistant coach Jason Forrester said. “You could tell they loved each other a whole lot. I am sure a lot of them, like we are, are in shock and disbelief about the whole thing.”

The 19-year-old wasn’t alone. Over Thanksgiving break, a Mississippi University for Women student died from suicide, and in February, a 14-year-old from Columbus died the same way. That’s three suicide victims younger than 20 from just Lowndes County in three months, Lowndes County Coroner Greg Merchant confirmed. And last year, a sixth grader at Armstrong Middle School in Starkville also died by suicide, apparently in response to bullying.

In fact, suicide among teenagers and young adults has increased steadily every year for the past decade, said Michael Nadorff, a psychology professor at Mississippi State University.

A hidden problem

Suicide is the second most common cause of death among teenagers and young adults, Nadorff said. In Mississippi alone, 58 people ages 10-25 died from suicide in 2016, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -- down from 68 in 2015, but still higher than every other year since 2010. But the increase is nationwide. Less than 5,000 people in that age range died by suicide in 2010, at an age-adjusted rate of 7.29 per 100,000 deaths. In 2016, that number was 6,159, at a rate of 9.21.

“There are actually more suicides than there are motor vehicle deaths,” Nadorff said. “That’s the one that really surprises people.

“Because you hear about the motor vehicle deaths all the time,” he added. “But you don’t really hear about the suicides. There’s still a stigma, so people don’t talk about it.”

Nadorff is currently working on suicide research with his fourth-year graduate student Kat Speed, who worked for several years with Contact Helpline, a Columbus-based nonprofit and crisis helpline. Speed said research she’s read suggests young people are at higher risk for suicide if they have chronic nightmares, have little or no family or peer support or have experienced trauma, such as abuse, as a child.

And it’s probably not a coincidence suicide has been increasing as social media use has been increasing, Nadorff said.

“I do think social media has changed the game a lot,” Nadorff said. ”... It’s not just the bullying and that sort of thing, though it certainly has ramped that up to a new level. But also for most of us, you only post the good things on social media, you don’t post the bad things.”

That can give people the idea they’re alone in having problems, he said -- important because feelings of loneliness or abnormality are common causes of suicide.

Speed also hypothesized tussles with identity factor into the causes, particularly for young people.

“People that lose sight of why they exist as a human ... I think that’s particularly prominent, identity,” she said. “Not knowing who I am or what my purpose is can be a really big part of that age group too.”

With those risk factors in mind, Speed said there are several red flags to look for -- loss of interest in normal activities, increases in substance abuse or saying “I don’t matter” among them.

But because of the stigma, Nadorff said, people sometimes shy away when they suspect a loved one to be in need. They’re afraid of broaching the subject, of giving a friend the idea to commit suicide -- which Nadorff said is a myth with no research to back it up. People also avoid addressing suicide with family members of victims or even people they know have recently attempted it.

“You go and check on your friend that came out of the hospital unless they came out of the psych ward,” he said. “Then maybe you don’t go and check on that friend.”

But checking on that friend or talking to that family member is often the best way to keep them from attempting suicide because it lets them know they have people who care about them, Nadorff and Speed said.

“Continually following up with (suicidal loved ones) and making sure they get connected with their health care providers and their mental health care providers ... is critical,” Speed said.

A community effort

Nadorff and Speed also emphasized the need for first responders and religious leaders in particular to change the way they handle suicidal individuals.

“People think that the psychologists and the mental health professionals are the front-line people, but we’re not,” Speed said. “We’re not the people that get called first nine times out of 10. So the first responders ... religious organizations, those types of people. (If) we were able to provide better type training to those individuals, those are the people that see it first, I think, after just friends and family.”

Currently some religious circles consider suicide a mortal sin -- meaning they believe people who die by suicide go to hell -- while some law enforcement circles equate it to criminal activity, Nadorff and Speed said. Those attitudes combined with lack of training mean sometimes those “front-line people,” however well-meaning they are, may just make matters worse.

“That’s not helpful if somebody is really stressed out or feeling bad about themselves already,” Speed said. “Telling them that they’re a bad person, or telling them that they’re going to go to jail, or telling them that they’re going to go to hell, those things are not particularly helpful to that person.”

She said first responders -- from police officers to emergency room workers -- should have better training on how to handle attempted suicides. Meanwhile, Nadorff said, families of victims need to know they’re not alone -- and that it’s not their fault.

Katrina Sunivelle, director of Contact Helpline in Columbus, is trying to meet that need with Safe Place to Share, a support group for survivors of suicide and families of suicide victims.

Part of Contact Helpline’s job is connecting people in the community with resources like Community Counseling Services, she said. But currently there is no survivors group specifically for those who’ve dealt with suicide.

“Many times families feel guilty or they deny it was really suicide,” Sunivelle said.

Support groups help them cope with the loss and give them a chance to talk with survivors and other people who have experienced the same kind of loss.

Sunivelle’s had the idea of such a support group for several months and has already coordinated with facilitators. She thinks she can have it up and running this summer and certainly by September, which is National Suicide Awareness Prevention Month.

“We have an opportunity for survivors to come express themselves,” she said. ”...They’re not forced to talk. They’re just going to be there with people who’ve experienced what they’ve experienced.”

Dispatch Sports Editor Adam Minichino contributed to this report.

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