As youth suicides climb, Colorado AG releases report on possible causes and solutions
In the 2017 Healthy Kids Colorado survey, 17 percent of all participating middle and high school students reported considering suicide and 7 percent reported attempting suicide at least once in the past year. Among LGBTQ youth, the rates jump to 44.8 percent of respondents who report having considered suicide and 19.9 percent attempting it.
This is one of several disturbing statistics that underlie a report on youth suicide in Colorado issued by the Colorado Attorney General’s office. The report, “Community Conversations to Inform Youth Suicide Prevention,” was commissioned during former state Attorney General Cynthia Coffman’s tenure to learn more about adolescent suicide in the state and find ways to address the crisis, as suicide has become the second leading cause of death among young people in Colorado — only behind all other forms of unintentional injury combined.
The study was conducted across six Colorado counties. The primary focus was on El Paso, La Plata, Mesa, and Pueblo counties, which have the state’s highest youth suicide rates. To find correlations and contrasts, the study also looked at Douglas and Larimer Counties, which have lower youth suicide rates. The study was conducted mainly through interviews with key stakeholders and people affected by youth suicide in these communities as well as focus groups involving adults and children.
In communities with the highest youth suicide rates, a common risk factor included poor economies and the associated stress they put on families and adolescents. The study also found risk factors common to rural areas, including limited transportation options and associated lack of access to help, limited insurance and provider options, lack of funds and resources for mental health programs, and a more disconnected local culture that isolates young people and puts them in a position where they have less people to turn to for help.
In wealthier, more urban counties like Douglas and Larimer, other common risk factors for youth suicide include anxiety related to family or social pressures to succeed, lack of prosocial activities that allow for stress-relieving and distracting recreation, as well as generational struggles that pit youth against adult instead of creating strong, trusting relationships that encourage open dialogue.
The lack of trust between youth and adults has roots in younger people feeling their opinions and feelings will be marginalized or condemned by adults, rather than finding any productive or helpful outcome from voicing their concerns. The study found that “[y]outh are concerned that adults will ‘freak out’ or overreact and not listen,” and that young people “expressed a wish that adults could just be with them in their pain without jumping to assessments or solutions, but rather just try to understand.”
According to the study, “[y]outh feel disheartened when adults tell them to ‘raise their voice’ or speak up about issues that concern them, but then shut them down when they do raise their voice.”
This suspicion and lack of trust closes off avenues of support to young people. This is especially dangerous when they face a situation they do not have the experience or life skills to cope with on their own. If they feel unable to ask questions and voice concerns, adolescents do not always have the coping skills or mechanisms to deal with a mental health crisis.
Across both rural and urban interviewees and focus groups, excessive social media use and cyberbullying were cited as significant risk factors.
“Youth are described as always being connected to their phones, plugged into social media accounts or texting,” the study found. “Adults expressed concern that youth use of social media is limiting their face-to-face interactions with others, while also leading to exponentially more opportunities to be impacted by the emotional lives of their peers, making managing the spread of harmful information impossible. Youth expressed feelings of anxiety about the image that must be maintained on social media, and that mistakes they make feel magnified on social media.”
Cyberbullying is the 21st century projection of an age-old problem. Bullying is no longer limited to school halls; with social media, the harassment follows you around. The associated problems with self-image, low self-esteem and social disconnection can all be related back to suicidal behavior.
Another problem associated with the constant intermingling of technology and life is the almost unlimited amount of information — both good and bad — that comes with access to the internet.
Good news, bad news or fake news — for young people unable to grasp the difference or context of it all, it can be overwhelming and lead to a sense of hopelessness.
There is also a danger to media coverage of suicide. Constantly being exposed to media coverage of individual suicides can traumatize young people or inadvertently make suicide seem like a common, and thus legitimate, method of solving personal problems. This is especially true if suicides are reported irresponsibly, such as with unnecessarily specific details about manner of death or language that sensationalizes the tragedy.
The final report on the study came up with a range of recommendations to stem the tide on youth suicide, with many attempting to address the problem or find a way around barriers to solutions.
Resources — such as funding as well as more providers, counselors, education campaigns, community-building activities, social and recreational activities, and associated ways to bring young people closer to people who can help them — is still among the top priorities for improving Colorado’s safety net for young people, especially in rural communities like Summit.
Also important is building strong, stable and trusting relationships between youth and adults, creating a culture that encourages discussion of mental health and the “growing pains” inherent in the struggle to navigate childhood, training adults and peers to recognize the signs of suicidal behavior or mental health crises, and implementing programs that guide and help young people learn how to cope with life and mental health struggles.
Finally, when reporting on suicide, traditional media, like the Summit Daily, can help by responsibly reporting on suicides while also educating and informing about the problem, as traditional media sources “have the ability to inform readers about the issue of suicide in such a way as to dispel myths, provide resources and encourage help-seeking behaviors.”
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