Deschutes

Deschutes County sees apparent jump in teen suicides

Mental health providers, law enforcement express concern

By Markian Hawryluk, The Bulletin

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National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

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Deschutes County Behavioral Health Crisis Services

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Oregon State Crisis & Information Hotline

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Deschutes County Mental Health Department

Main line: 541-322-7500

24 hours: 800-875-7364

Crook County Mental Health Program

Main line: 541-447-7441

After hours: 888-232-7192

Jefferson County Mental Health Services

Main line: 541-475-6575

Local mental health providers and law enforcement officials have expressed concerns about what appears to be a dramatic rise in teen suicides in Deschutes County this year.

At least five teens have died by suicide through August, representing a significant increase over average rates for the past decade. Since 2003, the county has averaged about one adolescent suicide per year, never registering more than three in any calendar year, according to data from the Oregon Health Authority.

There were teen suicides in Bend in February, June, July and August, as well as a second August suicide in La Pine, according to a list of teen suicides obtained by The Bulletin.

“It’s clearly a big increase,” said Dr. Kirk Wolfe, a child psychiatrist in Portland who wrote many of the teen suicide-prevention materials used by state officials.

Adolescent suicide rates in Oregon have been rising, from 11 per year from 2001 to 2010, to 18 per year in 2011 and 2012.

While the data do not show a similar increase for Deschutes County over those years, the state has yet to finalize its count for 2013, much less 2014.

Data on attempted suicide collected by the state, on the other hand, show that Deschutes County sees a disproportionate amount of attempts relative to its size. Oregon’s Adolescent Suicide Attempt Data System tallied 16 attempts in Deschutes County in 2010, higher than any other Oregon county with fewer than 350,000 residents. (The state has collected attempt data for 2011 to 2013 but is still pursuing funding to be able to compile and analyze the data.)

Officials from the Bend Police Department indicated they have seen a larger number of mental health-related calls this year, including suicide attempts, and last month called a meeting with other community partners to discuss the rising suicide rates.

“There has been a dramatic increase over the last several years,” said Bend Police spokesman Lt. Nick Parker. “We have seen an increase in our youth as well.”

Parker declined to reveal the specifics of what was discussed at the meeting but said the groups are exploring programs and interventions that could address suicide prevention for both adults and teens.

Data issues

State and county officials, however, urged caution in interpreting what appears to be a sudden jump in teen suicides until the data could be finalized.

“We don’t like to look at it in one year,” said Donna Noonan, youth suicide prevention coordinator with the Oregon Health Authority. “We don’t know that an increase is truly an increase until you look at multiple years of data, so we can look at it over time.”

So far, the state has officially registered three adolescent suicides for Deschutes County in 2014, and an OHA spokesman confirmed the number does not include suicides from August.

That leaves county officials unable to confirm there has been an increase in teen suicides this year or to comment on potential causes.

“We feel you really have to go by what the state reports,” said Susan Keys, chairwoman of the county’s Suicide Prevention Advisory Council. “We won’t know until October 2015, when that database closes.”

But Wolfe said that may be too late to respond to factors that could be contributing to teen suicides now.

“They may be related. There can be a contagion effect where one dies by suicide and others will follow that,” he said. “Sometimes there may be important stressors in the community for teens that may or may not be recognized as important by adults. If there is a major trauma in the community, maybe somebody dying by suicide, that becomes very significant for youth.”

High-profile suicides, such as the death of comedian Robin Williams last month, can lead to more attempts but can also spur more individuals to seek help. Calls to the National Suicide Prevention hotline, for example, more than doubled to 7,500 calls on the day after Williams’ death.

Bend may have experienced a similar phenomenon after a teen shot himself at Bend High in February, prompting widespread media coverage and social media traffic. That could be why local providers have reported more adolescents saying they’ve considered or attempted suicide this year than in the past.

“I do think that we see an impact from a very public suicide, the young man that died by suicide at Bend High, that reverberated,” Keys said. “We hear that and we do respond to it.”

She stressed that county officials are constantly working to prevent teens suicides and to identify at-risk teens regardless of whether the numbers are up or down.

“Any suicide, we are responsive to it,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be an uptick.”

Bend-La Pine Schools spokeswoman Julianne Repman said the district’s health advisory committee in 2012 had identified suicide-prevention training as a need and started implementing training programs even before the 2014 deaths, all of whom were district high schoolers. But the Bend High shooting in February raised the level of concern.

“There’s always a fear of clustering or copycatting when there is a very public suicide,” she said. “It just becomes big and you have to be considerate of, how does this affect other people in need?”

The school district has offered training opportunities to all its teachers and counselors and has provided more in-depth training for school psychologists and others with the goal of having at least two trained individuals per school.

Others working with teens have questioned whether the apparent increase this year might be because suicides in past years were not always identified or reported.

“I would be skeptical if the numbers were really clean from the past,” said Sondra Marshall, a licensed psychologist with St. Charles Behavioral Health. “My concern is that when people talk about an increase, people want to find a reason. I don’t know if we’re chasing our tail.”

Adolescent pressures

But Marshall also noted there have been more teens seeking help this year and the region has struggled to keep up with demand.

“I think there’s an agreement that to get these kids imminent help is a real challenge in this community because of the lack of access to resources,” she said.

Whether the number represents a real increase or not, there is agreement that losing five teens to suicide represents a heavy toll for a community of this size. That has left all involved trying to decipher what factors might have contributed to the teens’ decisions and how to address them.

“We can never know for sure,” said Michael Conner, a Bend psychologist who specializes in work with at-risk teens. “But we can make some very educated guesses.”

Conner points to concerning trends in the Oregon Healthy Teens Survey, taken by students in eighth and 11th grades every other year.

In 2013, a quarter of 11th-graders and a third of eighth-graders reported being harassed. Six percent of 11th-graders and 10 percent of eighth-graders skipped school because they felt unsafe. And 30 percent of 11th-graders and 24 percent of eighth-graders reported feeling so sad or hopeless that they stopped doing their usual activities.

“So when I look at these trends, I see a student population that’s in a lot of pain,” Conner said. “And nobody is talking about the fact that they’re attempting suicide.”

Marshall urges parents to pay close attention to changes in mood or demeanor that can provide clues that a child is feeling depressed or hurting. Changes in friends, increased isolation, worsening grades or changes in sleep patterns can all be signs a teen is struggling with depression.

“These kids are capable of talking about hard things. They want to be heard and they want to feel like they have a voice,” she said. “I always say, a child can’t throw down the ace of spades and say, ‘I wish I weren’t alive or I wish I were dead,’ without (someone) attending to that. They don’t get a pass when they say that.”

Marshall said the Bend High death opened the eyes of many in the community that Bend was not immune to these sorts of issues.

“It really started this community grass-roots effort that we’ve got to get this community together. No one person, no one institution can make this difference,” she said. “My hope is we don’t lose that momentum.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7814,

mhawryluk@bendbulletin.com

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