Suicide doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t care about how much money you have, or what your race, gender or religion is, said Judith Hughey, associate professor of counselor education and school counseling at K-State.
“It’s sometimes viewed as something that happens to other people,” Hughey said. “Or that it only happens to other families who have drug and alcohol issues or who have family problems. This is a societal issue in our country, particularly in our state, that impacts everybody.”
Local experts spoke to The Mercury sharing the warning signs to look out for and how you can reach out to someone who is potentially struggling with suicidal thoughts or depression.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of deaths by suicide in Kansas has consistently been higher than the national average since 2012. In 2018, 18.1 people per 100,000 died by suicide in the state versus 13.9 per 100,000 in the U.S.
It’s also the eighth-leading cause of death in Kansas, according to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment Vital Statistics’ most recent report from 2017.
Riley County is not isolated from this problem, either.
The 2017 KDHE report said eight people died by suicide in Riley County that year. In 2016, there were 10 deaths by suicide.
The number of suicide reports, which includes attempts and completed acts, the Riley County Police Department files each year has increased for the past five years. The number of attempted suicide reports increased from 48 to 85 from 2014 to 2018, or about 77%. Officers filed nine reports for completed suicides in 2014 versus seven in 2018.
According to a 2018 County Health Ranking by the Robert Wood Foundation program, surveyed Riley County citizens self-reported an average of 3.3 poor mental health days in the past 30 days, which is on par with the Kansas average. Eleven percent of adults reported frequent mental distress, or 14 or more days of poor mental health per month, which is 1% higher than the Kansas average.
It’s difficult to pinpoint a broad reason why people think suicide is a viable option, said Matt Myers, the crisis services director with Pawnee Mental Health Services, but it boils down to someone having stressors in their lives that they do not know how to deal with.
“Mental illness is a more common thing out there than people really think there is,” Myers said. “At any given time, about a fifth of Americans in the United States are diagnosed with a mental illness. Mental illness is something that there is hope and recovery for, so you’re not going to have this for the rest of your life. We look at what we can put in place to build a new normal in your life (and) how to deal with the stressors in your life.”
A 2018 CDC report said that in Kansas, the largest age group affected by suicide are those 25-34, followed closely by those ages 35-44. The 2017 KDHE report said a majority of the victims, about 75%, were men. Myers said while Pawnee does see common at-risk groups such as students and former and active military members, it treats people from a wide range of backgrounds and demographics.
Myers and Hughey both said suicide is preventable, and more often not, there are warning signs. Myers said to watch for any sort of changes in behavior, such as sleeping and eating habitats, that raise red flags.
If you see these behaviors, Myers said sometimes you have to be blunt and ask, “Are you thinking about suicide?” Myers said counselors at Pawnee coach people to feel comfortable in asking this question in its mental health first aid courses, as well as how to navigate the conversation if the person says yes.
“Sometimes people just need to tell what’s going on with them to lift the lid off the boiling pot and release the steam that’s building up,” he said. “A lot of times that can be very helpful, just talking with somebody. We want (the topic of) suicide to be approached without dread and without worry because if you go in with confidence, there can be a big release for the person who is thinking about suicide. It can be comforting to know that ‘Hey, someone picked up on this and someone cares.’”
Hughey said there is a negative stigma still attached to asking for help, and the beginning of breaking down those barriers involves openly talking about emotions, depression, anxiety and mental health in general. That conversation should start early, she said, whether that’s through parents or in school.
“As a society, we have to take away the shame of getting help for mental health,” Hughey said. “Just like if you had the flu or diabetes, you would go to the doctor and not be afraid to say to your neighbor, ‘Oh, I had the flu.’ Often times, like with anxiety, people don’t want to tell anyone so they wear a mask. … I think (change happens through) talking, having parents, teachers and counselors help identity feelings, and giving individuals permission by saying it’s OK to feel something, its OK to feel angry.”
Hughey and Myers said there are always professionals, both local and national, available who will be able to help someone identify healthy coping skills for someone, but asking for help is just the first step on the road to recovery.
“Seek help from a counselor because it really does make a difference,” Hughey said. “It’s not a sign of weakness, in fact, it’s a sign of courage and wisdom.”
Warning Signs of Suicide
Talking about wanting to die
Looking for a way to kill oneself
Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose
Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
Talking about being a burden to others
Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
Acting anxious, agitated, or recklessly
Sleeping too little or too much
Withdrawing or feeling isolated
Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
Displaying extreme mood swings
What to Do
Do not leave the person alone
Remove any firearms, alcohol, drugs, or sharp objects that could be used in a suicide attempt
Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), Pawnee Mental Health at 800-609-2002, The Veterans Crisis Line and Military Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255
Take the person to an emergency room, or seek help from a medical or mental health professional