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Idaho's youth suicide rate is too high. Here's what we can do about it | Opinion

Idaho Statesman - 12/3/2023

Editor's note:This is part of a series of opinion pieces examining the issue of juvenile suicides and what we can do to prevent them. This follows a report by the Idaho Statesman showing an alarming rise in youth suicides this year.

Are we doing enough to prevent youth suicides?

As the Idaho Statesman'sSally Krutzig reported this week, the Ada County Coroner's Office has recorded eight juvenile suicides since August. The Boise Police Department has responded to five youth suicides this year -- four in less than two months. Compare that with zero juvenile homicide responses from police from 2020 through 2022.

The Boise School District has had at least four suicides, including eighth-grader Kade Parrish, for whom friends and family held a vigil service in November.

We can think of few other instances as sad and tragic as a child dying by suicide.

And it's too common in Idaho.

Idaho had the fifth-highest youth suicide rate in the U.S. from 1999 to 2020, according to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

One of the things we can do is to address the topic of suicide head-on.

Suicide has long been a taboo subject. Journalists traditionally have avoided writing stories about suicide, especially juvenile suicide. Suicide is talked about in hushed tones if at all.

But it's time that the subject is brought out into the open -- frequently.

As Teresa Abbott, manager of the Idaho Health and Welfare Department's state Council on Suicide Prevention, told the Statesman, it's important to remove any shame from a discussion of suicide. Just avoiding the word can make teenagers feel that suicidal thoughts are disgraceful and influence them not to seek help if they're having those thoughts, Abbott said.

A 2022 Boise School District mental health survey found that 29% of junior high students and 34% of high school students had thoughts of suicide one or more times in the previous six months, according to Krutzig's reporting.

Parents need to talk openly and honestly with their children about suicide, and ask them directly whether they've had any suicidal thoughts.

The Boise School District has put crisis teams in place at each of the schools where a suicide or other death has occurred, according to Krutzig's story. Officials also have shared mental health resources to parents across the district and have begun to launch community meetings educating parents on suicide prevention and resources.

That's a good start.

Unfortunately, Idaho is woefully underfunded and understaffed when it comes to trying to prevent youth suicide.

The Idaho Department of Education recognizes that "school personnel spend more time with our children than any other professionals and are in a valuable position, through appropriate knowledge and action, to prevent suicide among students."

School counselors often are the first line of defense.

But Idaho has an average ratio of 500 students to one school counselor, according to the American School Counselor Association, which recommends that schools have one school counselor for every 250 students.

That means Idaho would need to double its number of counselors.

The American School Counselor Association report shows Idaho had 636 counselors for 314,000 students, or 494 students for each counselor in the 2021-22 school year.

If state officials want to address the issue of youth suicide, they should put their money where their mouth is.

Idaho Gov. Brad Little would do well by putting money in the 2024 budget to increase the number of counselors, and legislators should approve it.

Talking about the problem is one big step we can take as a means of youth suicide prevention, but the other big thing we can do is put money and resources toward the effort.

Preventing the death of another Idaho child by suicide is worth it.

Need help?

Experts also emphasized that suicide is preventable and treatment works for most people who seek help. Suicide prevention hotlines are available for people who feel suicidal, or people who are concerned about a loved one and need guidance or resources. All calls are confidential and anonymous. The following resources are available any time of day:

Warning signs

According to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, some people with suicidal tendencies may exhibit the following symptoms:

Talking or writing about suicide

Isolation or withdrawal

Agitation, especially combined with sleeplessness

Nightmares

Seeking methods to kill oneself

Feeling hopeless or trapped

Co-occurring depression, moodiness and hopelessness

Unexplained anger, aggression or irritability

Recent loss of family member or friend through divorce, suicide or other death

Changes in eating, sleeping, personal care or other patterns

Increased alcohol or drug use

Taking unnecessary risks/recklessness

No longer interested in favorite activities or hobbies

How to help your child

Gretchen Gudmundsen, a psychologist at St. Luke's Children's Center for Neurobehavioral Medicine, shared her top pieces of advice for parents.

Make sure teens have someone they feel safe with when it comes to discussing mental health. If they seem reluctant to talk, see whether they will share with another adult in their life, such as an aunt or uncle, or coach.

If a child is struggling, reduce access to potential means of harm. This reduces a person's "potential to act on a whim," according to Gudmundsen. Studies have found that teens are three to four times more likely to die by suicide if they have access to a firearm.

Set social media boundaries. Gudmundsen recommended parents treat their child's social media accounts the same way they treat their bedrooms. Respect their privacy, but make sure to take a look around every once in a while, especially if a child is exhibiting concerning behavior. Gudmundsen also suggested parents create their own accounts on Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat so they can follow their child.

(C)2023 The Idaho Statesman. Visit idahostatesman.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.