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Suicide prevention conference scheduled for March 26

Suicides by local teens continue to alarm and concern local residents and public officials, but most people are unprepared to deal with the results. On March 26 local officials will make a concerted effort to raise awareness of the public on the troubling trend- some are calling it an epidemic- and offer suggestions for prevention.

The Community Awareness on Suicide Prevention Conference is slated to begin at 8:30 a.m. in the BTAC, located at 375 South Carbon Avenue in Price. There is no registration fee.

A quick glance at the youth suicide statistics for Utah show why local mental health officials are concerned:

•Eighty to 90 percent of Utah youth suicides are male.

•Suicide is the second leading cause of death among Utah males ages 10-34 and the third leading cause of death for residents 35-44 and the fourth leading cause of death for residents age 45-54.

•Firearms are the most common method of death for Utah youth suicide completers.

•Utah youth are most likely to complete suicide in their homes.

•Ninety-three percent of Utah suicides aged 13-21 were Caucasians.

•Sixty-five percent of Utah youth suicide completers had involvement with the Juvenile Justice system and 41 percent had involvement with DCFS, yet most were not seeing a therapist at the time of death.

•Seventy-two percent of Utah youth suicide ages 13-18 are enrolled in school.

Local therapist Kyle Elder, PhD, says any suicide leaves an entire community devastated and wishing they had done something to prevent it.

"Whenever it happens we have a lot of local people in the area who are affected by it and there are always more we don't hear about," said Elder, "and it's something that is difficult or nearly impossible for us to prepare for."

Elder said a nearly universal response is for people to feel a deep sense of loss and a strong need to identify with it because it's really painful.

"Whenever a local teen commits suicide, I have a lot of students come to me and say their best friend just committed suicide. When I check into it, they really weren't their best friend, just an acquaintance. That feeling of closeness and loss felt by survivors is their way of dealing with a loss of control and their way of dealing with their grief," explained Elder.

The family of the victim must go through the normal grieving process, while community members feel confused and don't know what to do. That is compounded by our lack of understanding on why this would happen and why they would do that.

"We all must do a lot of soul-searching," said Elder.

Four Corners Substance Abuse Coordinator, Liz Ferguson often councils with teens following a local teen suicide.

"Teens talk to me about how overwhelmed they feel and sometimes they have suicidal thoughts or feeling themselves. Often they come to me as a result of some event or series of events that they personally find overwhelmingly traumatic or distressing," said Ferguson.

"The feedback I get from teens about suicide is that there are kids out there talking about suicide. Some teens haven't been taught the coping skills needed to deal with a sometimes overwhelming world."

Events that can trigger suicidal thoughts include:

•Being removed from the home of biological family and placed in foster care.

•A split with a boyfriend of girlfriend.

•An appearance in court.

•An especially violent family dispute.

•An arrest.

Family members are usually hit the hardest and normally struggle to understand why it happened and usually feel guilty for not doing something to prevent it.

"Most family members want to feel responsible and to blame themselves. They either take the blame or want to feel responsible. They often feel like if they had only talked to them (the victim), or if they had not left them alone, or not allowed them to take the car, or the girlfriend feels like if she hadn't broken up with him, that wouldn't have happened," said Elder.

Elder emphasized that suicide is a decision made by one person and if that person is bound and determined to end his or her life, no one else is responsible.

"We must allow them to be responsible," he said.

Younger siblings of the victim become very frightened because they often don't understand death and that leaves them unsure of their future. They can act out and cause further problems for the family.

Additional responses by families can include denial that the death was a suicide.

"Families can deny it was a suicide and can claim it was an accident. It looks better if it was an accident, because that protects the image of the family. An accidental overdose or accidental shooting is perceived as being better. They just don't want to admit there was a serious problem in the family," said Elder.

Ferguson said even the best home are being affected by this nationwide problem.

"More teens than ever are in need of help and parents are looking for new solutions to this old problem," she said.

The March 26 conference will feature two improv presentations by a local teen group called Turn Around. The presentations will explore why teens commit suicide and how if affects those around them.

An update will also be given on a recent study of Utah suicides and a panel of experts and family members impacted by local suicides will discuss the issue. The panel will also be made up of officials from the National Association of the Mentally Ill, Carbon School District, local clergy and the Children's Center in Salt Lake City.

The final item on the agenda is a call to action for the local community.

"As a community we don't expect suicide and we don't know what to look for. There are signals, but we're usually not very good at identifying kids at risk and frequently it's those we wouldn't identify even if we looked," said Elder. "We try to keep suicides secret and we act like it's not OK to talk about them. Families have a very difficult time dealing with it and it's very, very painful."

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