Mental health experts at Akron Children’s, in partnership with colleagues throughout the community, have been working on solutions to prevent suicide. Now the concern is even greater given the COVID-19 pandemic and the way it has disrupted lives on a vast and historic scale.
With so much trauma due to the virus – the death of loved ones, high rates of unemployment, feelings of isolation, the loss of routines and pleasures, fear of seeking care in the ER and other health and mental health care services, and so much uncertainty about the future – experts predict a surge in mental health needs in Ohio.
A recently released study from Ohio University, “Suicide in Ohio: Facts, Figures and the Future,” provides a sweeping examination of suicide in Ohio in the past decade.
The study, which can be found here, provides suicide rates calculated to the township level in specific areas of Southwest and Northeast Ohio, giving mental health care providers a more precise idea of where prevention messages are most needed.
In addition to Ohio University, officials with the Mental Health and Addiction Advocacy Coalition, the Ohio Alliance for Innovation in Population Health and the Ohio Suicide Prevention Foundation were involved in developing the report.
Suicide has been on the increase for much of the 21st century. Rates continue to rise across all ages, races and genders, and suicide accounts for nearly two and a half times the number of homicides. The national rate of suicide now is around 14 for every 100,000 people in the population.
The OU study found that 37 of Ohio’s 88 counties, many of them rural and with little access to health care, are now above the national rate of 14 suicide deaths for every 100,000 people. Seven of the 10 counties with the highest rates of suicide have fewer than 50,000 people.
Summit and Stark are two of 37 counties statewide who surpass the national suicide rate. The study found the average annual rate of suicide deaths per 100,000 people was 14.54 in Summit,16.48 in Stark, 12.45 in Portage, 12.42 in Medina, and 12.22 in Wayne. In Summit County, the average annual rate per 100,000 people ranged from the lowest at 5.39 to 22.6 lives across various communities.
The suicide rate increased by 93 percent among children age 14 or younger; that age group accounted for 1.6 percent of Ohio’s suicide deaths in 2018.
The Summit County Suicide Postvention Plan
In early June, Akron Children’s Hospital’s hosted a virtual workshop entitled “Connect: Youth Suicide Postvention,” designed by the National Alliance on Mental Illness New Hampshire (NAMI NH), funded by a grant to Akron Children’s External Affairs from the Ohio Department of Health Child Injury Grant.
Participants includes first responders, including police, fire and Victims Assistance, faith-based leaders, social workers, mental health professionals, school counselors and pediatric health care providers.
“Postvention as part of suicide prevention planning is not a user-friendly term but what it means is responding to or being prepared to respond in a way that’s helpful after a suicide death,” said Ken Norton, executive director of NAMI NH, “And that’s a really important piece because we know that one of the highest risk factors for suicide is when we know somebody who has died by suicide.”
“NAMI NH’s Connect is recognized as a national best practice program,” said Beth Kuckuck, children’s program coordinator for the County of Summit ADM Board. “The goal is to develop a youth suicide postvention plan and, if you consistently follow the steps after a death by suicide, you can minimize the risks that may lead to more deaths. So postvention becomes prevention.”
“In practical terms, this would include guidelines on how families and friends receive support, how schools should memorialize students, how the media report upon suicide deaths, and how to intervene if rumors and misinformation are shared on social media”, said Sherry Blair, injury prevention coalition coordinator for Akron Children’s Hospital.
“Especially when it comes to youth, suicide contagion or an increase in suicides or suicidal behaviors is a very real concern,” said Blair. “So that’s why suicide postvention plans are considered an important component of suicide prevention.”
Blair and Kuckuck co-chair the Summit County Youth Suicide Prevention Subcommittee (YSPS) of the Summit County Suicide Prevention Coalition, a collaboration of community partners working on reducing youth suicides in the county. The development of a Summit County Postvention plan is part of the YSPS strategic plan.
Participants of the training are still working on their final recommendations, based on local Summit County community needs, but here are some tactics that are generally considered best practices:
- Make resources for suicide prevention – websites, call lines and text-based help – readily available. Emphasize that suicide is preventable.
- Crisis teams and key providers in communities and schools can play an important role in identifying and supporting individuals and groups who may be at risk, in collaboration with first responders, law enforcement, emergency room, health care and mental health care personnel, the faith-based community, family, friends, and other community members.
- Schools should consider offering time-limited memorials instead of permanent memorials. Make this a standard practice for all student deaths.
- Don’t glorify or romanticize suicide when death has occurred. Vulnerable people, especially young people, may identify with the attention and sympathy garnered by someone who has died by suicide. Focus on the life of the person and not manner of death.
- In news stories on social media and in private conversation, don’t present overly detailed descriptions of suicide victims or methods of suicide. Research shows that pictures or detailed descriptions of how or where a person died by suicide can be a factor in vulnerable individuals imitating the act. Clinicians believe the danger is even greater if there is a detailed description of the method.
- Talk openly about mental health issues and effective treatments. It helps to reduce the stigma and may prompt an individual or family to seek help. Over 90 percent of those who die by suicide suffer from a significant psychiatric illness, substance abuse disorder or both at the time of their death. Share stories of hope and recovery.
- Avoid certain words and phrases in talking or reporting on suicide. Instead of the phrase “committed suicide” say “died by suicide.” Avoid words like “successful,” “unsuccessful” or a “failed attempt.”
- Offer non-judgmental support/acknowledgement to survivors of suicide loss, not only in the days following the death but for years to come.
- All settings should incorporate postvention as a component of a comprehensive approach to suicide prevention. Schools, communities, workplaces, health care providers, and organizations should be prepared to respond to a suicide, and avoid the mindset that “this will never happen here.”
For more information or would like to join the Summit County Youth Suicide Prevention Subcommittee, contact Sherry Blair at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you’re struggling with suicidal thoughts or worried about a friend or loved one and need support, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255). The line is free, confidential and available 24/7 and staffed by skilled crisis workers.
Text the keyword 4HOPE to 741741 to talk with a skilled crisis worker at the Crisis Text Line. The service is free and available 24/7.
Other local resources include:
Akron Children’s Hospital Psychiatric Intake Response Center (available 24/7) 330-543-7472
Summit County ADM Board mental health hotline (available 24/7): 330-434-9144