Suicide. The word resonates deeply throughout any community.
For some, it is a painful reminder of the loss of a loved one. For others, it is a category of death that concerns first responders, social workers and lawmakers who are seeking to prevent more deaths.
The reaction to suicide is complex. Those who are touched by the death of a loved one or a friend look for answers for the rise in suicides, especially in Elko County. In recent years the number has skyrocketed, evidenced by more calls to the Elko Interagency Dispatch Center and the county coroner.
According to dispatcher Colleen Piacitelli, the amount of suicide calls in Elko County is rising. In 2018, dispatch received 464 calls regarding threats of suicide, attempts at suicide, or deaths by suicide. Within the first two months of 2019, dispatch has taken 73 calls. Four of them resulted in death determined by suicide.
As the numbers increase, so do the studies that point to a suicide crisis among youth, with Nevada ranking 11th in the nation, according to 2017 data released this month by the American Association of Suicidology. The group reported that “suicide is the second leading cause of death among Nevada youth aged 10-24 years old.”
Elko County chief deputy coroner Nick Czegledi reported in 2018 there were 15 deaths resulting from suicide. In 2017, there were 19. But it’s the age of the victims that is disturbing to him.
“Between 16 and 30 years old is a high zone,” said Czegledi.
He explained that suicides among elderly adults are often due to illness, while those in their 40s or 50s can be a result of psychological trauma such as the loss of a spouse.
“The younger ones seem to be more preventable,” Czegledi said.
Last year, eight suicides in Elko County were between the ages of 16 and 33 years old.
Youth suicides on the rise
Testifying before the Nevada Legislature’s Committee of Education on March 7 in Carson City, Piacitelli said she has taken calls from children as young as 6 years old threatening suicide.
“With insanely increasing numbers, I ask myself, ‘Why do we have our children and young adults turning to suicide?’” Piacitelli said.
The answers might be revealed when a teen hits his or her crisis point, according to Larry Robb, social worker coordinator for the Elko County School District. He opens his office at Elko High School to any student who needs to visit for five minutes or longer, and he and his staff have handled many suicide threats.
“At the time of ‘crisis’ the student does not always articulate a reason,” Robb said. Sometimes it is one or a mix of several factors, he said, including feelings of isolation from peers and/or family; conflicts among them; and a feeling of inability to cope with life’s challenges.
Piacitelli agreed with Robb, adding that “there isn’t one answer. One person’s breaking point is going to be different from another.”
However, one of the top factors seems to be social media posts, Robb said. “Youth have access to many apps that may be used for bullying, blackmail and gossip.”
The school district said about 15 to 20 students reported instances of self-harm through the online reporting system SafeVoice within the past year. The district has seen about one to two suicides per year, but could not provide an exact number “because of lack of reporting,” said Superintendent Todd Pehrson.
Statewide, SafeVoice received 7,383 tips in connection with suicide last year.
Prevention through education
Before a child reaches their school campus, the warning signs are already present, says Lynette Vega, a teacher and suicide prevention awareness advocate.
Sitting at her desk at the Elko Institute of Academic Achievement, Vega remembered how her life changed from a phone call in early 2008 informing her of her 23-year-old daughter’s death.
Rachelle Sloan was living in South Carolina at the time, and was serving in the Air Force. She had returned from a tour of duty in Iraq and had been hospitalized after one suicide attempt two months before she took her life.
“I thought she was getting the help she needed,” Vega said. “This is the one big reason why I’m an advocate for suicide prevention. I wasn’t educated.”
Today, Vega leads a local support group and recently started Zero Suicides Elko County, a nonprofit that will aim to educate the community about how to spot warning signs and talk to someone contemplating suicide.
One lesson learned was that “parents need to take it serious when kids come to them and admit their thoughts to them,” Vega said, adding that parents must also be aware of their child’s changes in habits and outlook on life.
“Sadness and depression are two different things,” said Vega, who teaches life skills at EIAA. Someone can be sad for not getting the thing they want, whereas someone with depression has difficulty getting out of bed and stops engaging with society.
Educating someone with depression to ask for help is vital, Vega said. “Like I tell the kids; they are their biggest advocate when they don’t feel right …. Go to someone who can help, but you don’t give up.”
Her desire to get the word out about resources and warning signs of suicide led Vega to approach Assemblyman John Ellison to sponsor Assembly Bill 114, which aims to enforce a previous law, NRS 389.021, to teach suicide prevention to fifth through 12th grade students.
Speaking before the Legislature’s Committee on Education March 7, Ellison was joined by Vega and Piacitelli. Ellison explained that although it is an unfunded mandate, he appealed to the committee to enforce the statute.
“I’m not asking to put debt on anyone, but to follow some of the laws that are out there on the books,” he said.
The seven-letter word
Starting the conversation about suicide early is necessary to address mental health issues and remove fear from the topic, said Vega a week before testifying in Carson City.
“Parents are worried about the stigma,” she said. “[They] are discriminated. The family is looked at like they have something wrong with them.”
It also includes having the right words to get to an individual’s heart who is in the midst of a crisis. One such program, safeTalk alertness training, has proven beneficial for at least one school administrator who was immediately faced with a student who stated he wanted to end his life, Vega said.
“Up until that day, he had no idea what to say and no idea what to talk about. The training was very helpful for him,” Vega said.
Tackling the subject of mental health head-on by having parents and counselors join forces is necessary to fight the problem and save lives, said Robb.
“Stigma surrounding accessing mental health resources needs to change,” he said. “Thoughts and feelings towards suicide prevention need to change as well.”
No age limit
Suicides are most prevalent among adults between the ages of 45 and 65 whose age group ranks first in data from 2017, according to the American Association of Suicidology. But the prevalence among teens and young adults has risen much faster in recent years.
Vega admitted that in the years after her daughter’s death, she endured a deep depression that gave her another perspective into what the crisis looks like from the inside.
“I went through my ordeal,” Vega said. “Nobody noticed or said anything to me. You can look normal, even if you aren’t doing well.”
“I had to go to a grief counselor,” she remembered. “I couldn’t do this anymore by myself. I had to reach out.”
Coming out of that experience, Vega said it has made her fearless when she notices something is off about a friend or co-worker.
“If I see something going on, I will approach them. I’m not afraid to ask. You can’t be afraid to ask,” Vega said.
The darkness doesn’t last
The uncertainty of how to handle challenges and the burdens of life weighs heavily on today’s youth, said Robb.
“Students report lack of church attendance, aloneness, loneliness, taking on too many roles, such as having to care for younger siblings, or working,” as some other reasons teens contemplate suicide.
Piacitelli hears similar reasons.
“The one factor I hear and see most [are people] coping with everyday life, whether it is school, family or friends,” she told the Legislature. “Our young people are missing this key ingredient to surviving their current moment and thriving into adulthood.”
So how can someone survive the moment of crisis? According to Vega, it comes down to education about the bigger picture and the fact that the pain will not last, which are lessons learned from her daughter’s death.
“I carry the guilt with me that I didn’t learn about suicide prevention until after her death,” Vega told the committee. “She didn’t want to die; she only wanted her pain to end.”
Today, Vega teaches her students to keep in mind a couple of simple truths for when the hard times hit and the pain may seem unbearable. One is that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.
The other is, “life is always changing. Hang in there for another day.”