County makes efforts to improve resources to prevent teen suicide

Posted 9/13/19

The Chatham County Sheriff’s Office responded last month to two attempted suicides of young people, both under 25. Neither survived.

Josie [not her real name], a senior in a Chatham County high …

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County makes efforts to improve resources to prevent teen suicide

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The Chatham County Sheriff’s Office responded last month to two attempted suicides of young people, both under 25. Neither survived.

Josie [not her real name], a senior in a Chatham County high school, is planning for the third funeral of a friend in as many years. She just turned 17.

“I feel like everyone is leaving me,” Josie said.

Being a teenager is difficult in today’s society — social media, peer pressure, stress about the future. Having to cope with the death of friends — the last the result of suicide — is yet another pressure that is becoming more prevalent for Gen Z, this current generation of teenagers.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death in young people aged 10-17 in North Carolina, according to a report by the North Carolina State Center for Health Statistics. And a report from the Centers for Disease Control notes that the suicide rate for those 15-24, the older half of Gen Z, is the highest its been since in decades with a 51 percent increase over the past decade alone. County statistics mirror that of the state where the second leading cause of death for children 0-19 between 2013-2017 is suicide, tied with those who died from congenital anomalies, according to the Chatham County Public Health Department.

In the past year, the Chatham County Sheriff’s Office responded to nine suicide attempts and three completed suicides of people under the age of 25. Of those, five of the attempts and one of the completed suicides were of juveniles under the age of 18. Siler City Police Department did not report any suicide attempts for that age group during the same time and Pittsboro’s Police Department was unable to produce its statistics in time for this report.

“The community is deeply saddened by the loss of young life,” Chatham County Sheriff Mike Roberson said. “Our hearts go out to the families living through the aftermath of these tragedies.”

Josie heard about her friend’s suicide right before her first class of the day. She describes feeling almost paralyzed and unable to speak upon hearing the news. She dropped her books in her class and made her way to the bathroom where she began sobbing uncontrollably. She eventually made her way to the guidance counselor’s office where, in discussion with her parents, it was decided that she would try to make it through a few classes and leave for the day at lunch.

“I felt like I was walking around like a zombie,” Josie said. “I felt numb.”

Once in the safety of her mother’s car, she collapsed into tears. She described feeling anger, confusion, guilt, and most of all, deep sadness over the loss of a second friend to suicide in two years. She found solace in reaching out to mutual friends to both ease her own mind that they were alright and to find comfort in their mutual loss.

Upon Josie’s return to school, the guidance counselor offered to connect her with a mental health professional. Chatham County Schools currently contracts with several mental health providers to bring mental health professionals to counsel students during school hours. Josie’s parents signed a release and after verifying her health insurance, a mental health professional was assigned to provide counseling not only for her grieving period, but for other stresses that she experiences.

In the 2018 Chatham County Community Assessment, created by a coalition led by the Chatham Health Alliance and the Chatham County Public Health Department, one-fifth of Chatham County high school students reported “seriously considering attempting suicide” in 2017, with about 17 percent making a plan, 11 percent attempting and nearly 5 percent having an attempt that resulted in injury. Chatham County’s rates were all higher than state and national statistics.

Roberson noted that several recent cases appear to have a common thread — mental health.

“In some instances, our young people are dealing with what could seem like insurmountable stress,” Roberson said. “Some may struggle to cope with life changes, relationships, drug dependency or common fears without realizing there are people and resources available to help them through it. Although they may feel isolated, they are not alone.”

Chatham County and its partners have made efforts to try to improve resources to prevent the growing trend.

Access to Mental Health Services was first identified as a county health priority in the Chatham County Community Health Assessment released in 2014. It was prioritized again in the 2018 Community Assessment at part of “Access to Comprehensive Health Services.”

“‘Access to Comprehensive Health Services’ joins efforts to address the whole person’s needs by improving access to both mental and physical health resources is in the county, as mental and physical health are fundamentally linked and many of the same barriers impede access to both mental and physical health care,” said Shannon Kincaide Godbout, Chatham County Public Health Department’s social research associate.

The 2018 Community Assessment noted that many local residents travel outside of the county to seek medical treatment since Chatham County has far fewer health care providers for its population than the state average. Though Daymark Recovery opened in July 2017 in Siler City to fill a void in mental health coverage in Chatham County, only 5.4 percent of residents noted they were aware of services the clinic provided, according to the report. Daymark’s services include clinical health assessments, mental health and substance abuse treatment, outpatient individual and group therapy, and medication management.

Godbout said the Chatham Health Alliance, a community collaborative of agencies and organizations aimed at improving health and well-being in Chatham, has been “actively engaged in improving access to mental and physical health resources in the county since its inception.”

The county, through the Chatham Health Alliance, has developed resource guides on available mental health resources in the county on the Chatham County website. This includes information for Daymark, mental health providers, as well as resources specific to children and adolescents, families, and Spanish language services. The Chatham County Public Health Department also hosts community events. The next event is on September 27 in Siler City in conjunction with the Siler City Parks and Recreation Friday Night Flicks series at Bray Park, 800 Alston Bridge Road. That event will feature a live band and the family-friendly movie “Ralph Breaks the Internet” as well as a focus on mental health and substance abuse awareness for families.

The Sheriff’s Office is also focused on mental health of Chatham residents. Its employees receive specialized training in “crisis intervention, youth interaction, deescalation techniques, coping with stress, and other related topics in order to assist individuals in crisis.” Roberson says his deputies and Victim Services Unit are “intended to be a resource for the community, especially those who are fearful or feeling emotionally overwhelmed.” Although they are not licensed mental health practitioners, his staff members are “equipped to guide individuals to appropriate resources, services and emergency care if needed.”

However, Roberson notes, many individuals or families struggling with mental illness are reluctant to seek help, perhaps due to perceived social stigma. Other challenges include identifying when someone may be in need. The Center for Disease Control notes that “many people who die from suicide are not known to have a diagnosed mental health condition at the time of death.” The American Psychological Association says that “after decades of research, science is no better able to predict suicidal behaviors.”

Josie pointed out what could be yet another problem — something that she calls the “normalization of suicide.” She describes this as when a person who is exasperated hyperbolically exclaims “I’ll just go kill myself” or “I’ll just go jump off a bridge,” when not truly feeling suicidal feelings. Indeed, many who commit suicide give very little warning signs of their true feelings. That being said, as a community, it is important that we reach out to others, connect and engage in community activities and reassure each other that we are not alone.

Perhaps the focus on the problem of youth suicide in North Carolina is having an impact. Ashley Conger, the chief communications officer for Cardinal Innovations, a managed care organization that works in Chatham County, noted North Carolina saw a slight decline in completed suicide rates last year, which she says “demonstrates that it is possible to make an impact in our local communities.”

“Cardinal Innovations believes that suicide deaths for individuals under the care of health and behavioral health systems are preventable and we aim to contribute to suicide prevention in a variety of ways,” Conger said.

She notes that Cardinal Innovations not only connects members to mental health services and supports, but also partners with “schools, hospital staff, first responders, faith-based organizations, social service agencies, local community agencies and more to provide outreach, education and training specific to mental health and suicide-prevention.”

And if you or a loved one are feeling desperate, the most important step is to call 911 or the North Carolina Suicide Prevention Hotline serving Chatham County at 1-800-233-6834 to speak with someone who can help. Cardinal Innovations offers a 24/7 toll-free crisis line for those in need of mental health services. That number is 1-800-939-5911. Cardinal Innovations also conducts trainings with certified trainers available in Chatham County in “Question, Persuade, Refer, or QPR,” a nationally recognized training aimed at reducing suicidal behaviors. To request a training, please contact trainingrequest@cardinalinnovations.org.

Reporter Casey Mann can be reached at CaseyMann@Chathamnr.com.

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