September is National Suicide Prevention month. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s (AFSP) “Out of the Darkness” community walk just took place this past weekend with over 1,000 attending at Navy Stadium, one program head said Anne Arundel County girls have been particularly vulnerable to mental health stressors associated with suicide recently.
“There has been an uptick in adolescent girls with either more acute ideation or anxiety and depression,” said the program manager for the county health department’s Adolescent and Family Services, Kathryn Mattison. “During Covid-19 (pandemic) we keep seeing more adolescent girls.”
Mattison said she didn’t know why there had been a rise in the number of girls struggling with these mental health issues. She did confirm there were three youth suicides in the county in 2020.
“Our epidemiologists keep track of suicide attempts we know about in the hospital,” she said. “It’s never been easy to be a kid, but these days we’re seeing it younger.”
She said fully a third of the children that have visited the Sheppard Pratt Crisis Walk-in Clinic in Towson are 14 years old or younger. Some can be as young as eight years old, she noted.
The need is great enough that Luminis Health, at Anne Arundel Medical Center, is developing plans to open it’s own program, Mattison said.
Over the years researchers have learned more about suicide. They have identified common risk factors that include divorce, relationship breakups, financial troubles, and rejection by peers.
“All of these things are manifested for adolescents,” Mattison said. “Everything is personal at that age, and its hard to see that life can get better. Everything seems to be amplified by that lense of personal pain. I think kids are under a lot of stress these days,”
There is good news though. The health issues that can lead to suicide attempts are very treatable.
She said family and friends are often the ones with most power to intercede before a crisis arises.
“Suicide is preventable and is very easily treated,” she said. “If you can inject your compassion at the right time you will prevent a suicide.”
Warning signs a person may be at risk of suicide include that person expressing thoughts of killing themselves, feeling of worthlessness, hopelessness, feeling trapped, being a burden, of being in unbearable pain.
The person might research the subject of suicide, withdraw and isolate from others, increase alcohol or drug use, sleep excessively, be aggressive, give away prized possessions, or even make calls to say goodbye.
The mood of those considering suicide can often include anxiety and depression, loss of interest, irritability and agitation, humiliation, or the presence of a sudden improvement in attitude.
Happily, national statistics show that the number of youth committing suicide between 2018 and 2019 (the year for which the latest data is available) has dropped. Adolescent and Family Services was treating 251 kids as of September 20, not all of them are susceptible to the issue of suicide perhaps, but Mattison reiterated how important it is for adults to stay in tune to the lives of the young people close to them.
“One of the most important myths is that if you ask a child about suicide that you’re planting a seed,” she said. “That’s absolutely not true. You’re inviting them into a safe and welcoming place.
“Put it out there and then be prepared to respond—not react—in a non-judgmental and compassionate way. Depending on the response, alert others or find a therapist or therapist group. Family involvement is probably the most protective factor followed by a support system—sometimes in school.”
Compassion can lead to community. Last Saturday’s Out of the Darkness Walk in Annapolis, is a demonstration of that. Those who have been impacted by suicide or just care about the issue participated Saturday. Money raised at the walk goes toward AFSP’s programs to research suicide, fund education and advocacy programs, as well as offer support to those who have lost someone.
The walk also shows participants that they are not alone.
“Especially for our community it’s important to see others,” said Kathrin Olbrich, AFSP’s director in Maryland and Delaware. “They get hope from seeing others in the community.”
She said the walk this year at the stadium was even more hopeful than usual, perhaps because last year’s walk had been impacted by the pandemic.
“Everybody was happy to see faces,” Olbrich said.
Interestingly, research done by the foundation has revealed suicide can be conclusively prevented when people live a healthy lifestyle. The majority of people who die from suicide have developed an underlying mental health condition, Olbrich said.
With the seasons changing, and children going back to school recently, there is hope for an increase in normal schedules for them and their families. That could reduce stress. Students will be around other children and adults in the education system so Mattison thinks her program may get more referrals.
“This is going to be an interesting fall,” she said. “It’s going to be a lot of adjustments for people across the board.”