DYING FOR ANSWERS: Aurora police, schools, state tackle child suicide

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AURORA | Colorado is grappling with how to fight a growing trend of youths dying by suicide across the state including here in Aurora.

Nine kids have taken their own lives as of November, according to Aurora police, as of November, compared to just two in 2016 and 2015. The number of youths who attempted suicide so far in 2017 was 21, compared to 17 in 2016 and 13 in 2015.

The magnitude of the problem was made all too apparent when Aurora 10-year-old Ashawnty Davis hanged herself in November after being subjected to bullying at school and then having the incident spread through social media. In August, two teenagers in Littleton killed themselves within a day of each other and a 13-year-old girl died after being subjected to bullying on social media.

The increase in attempts and deaths in and around Aurora is not a local anomaly. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for Coloradans between the ages of 10-34 and rates across the country are rising as well. In 2015, Colorado’s teen suicide rate rose to 20.1 per 100,000 teens between the ages 15-19, the highest recorded rate since these data became available in 1999.

The increase has prompted action on a state level. Attorney General Cynthia Coffman announced Dec. 12 her office would be researching the increase in youth suicide attempts and deaths in four of the hardest hit counties and putting $200,000 toward increasing schools access to the Sources of Strength program.

“Suicide is not only a mental health, family or school issue, it is public health challenge and community issue that requires coordinated and comprehensive prevention efforts,” Coffman said in a press release on the announcement. “Too many families in our state have faced the incredible tragedy of losing a child, and when a young person dies by suicide it doesn’t just impact their family or friends, it causes ripples across the community. We know that we have young people in our state who are struggling and we must respond to their cries for help.”

State Sen. Rhonda Fields is set to hold a stakeholder meeting in Aurora near the end of the month to hear about the issue of youth suicide and find if the state’s current law against bullying needs to be revised to include issues like cyberbullying.

“We’re seeing far too many students across the state taking their lives in cyberbullying,” Fields said. “What I’m doing right now I’m looking at that legislation and seeing if it needs to be refreshed so we’re much more responsive on different levels on where we can intervene.”

Fields said the investment from the Attorney General’s office was a great start and that the state needs to look at other ways as well to help make sure students get help to prevent any more students from taking their life.

Growing problem and social media 

Bullying has long been associated with increases in depression, anxiety and poor performance in school. But according to studies, bullying alone isn’t the cause of increases in suicidal thoughts and actions.

Yet the effect of social media can lead to the traumatic effects of bullying to be exacerbated, said Kirsten Anderson, division director for outpatient services and disaster coordinator with Aurora Mental Health Center.

“We did use to exist in isolated environments. Not anymore. Social media is present 24 hours a day. When a child was bullied 20 years ago, that bullying incident was isolated to the bully and the victim,” Anderson said. “Now it’s put on social media it’s broadcast to thousands and thousands of people and that’s a much different and traumatic experience.”

Jill Holm-Denoma, a clinical professor in the University of Denver’s Department of Psychology, said while research hasn’t been widespread on the effects of cyberbullying on children, studies show that for teens and young adults cyberbullying can have a drastic effect on suicidal idealization.

“There compelling evidence that theres a relationship between cyberbullying and suicidal thoughts and actions,” Holm-Denoma said. “There’s also literature in that age group that shows a relationship between the time spent on new screen media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) and rates of depression and perceived social isolation.”

Holm-Denoma said that unlike young adults and adults, suicidal idealization and attempts have been connected to impulse control in children. While much of the literature and suicide prevention programing is based on data from adults, Holm-Denoma said she hoped moving forward more focus would be paid on studying depression and suicide specifically in children and creating ways to screen for issues.

Addressing the problem

One of the best ways to help prevent suicidal attempts and deaths is to help create pathways for help and targeted interventions. Programs that can not only break down stigmas attached to depression and suicidal idealization but also provide recipients with coping tools can make a big difference in the long run.

One way that some in the state want to help address the issue is by taking away barriers for young students to be able to talk with a counselor. State Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, who represents portions of Adams County, pushed a bill in the 2017 Legislature that would have lowered the age a student could talk to a school counselor without parental consent to 12. The bill passed out of the state House but was sent to the state Senate’s kill committee despite having a Republican Senate cosponsor.

For Michaelson Jenet, who is set to bring the bill back for the 2018 legislative session, the issue of suicide is a personal one. Her son when he was 9 years old attempted suicide while at school. Being able to create pathways for younger students to access counseling and the tolls learned in therapy can have a significant impact on the mental wellbeing of school community across the state.

Giving kids access to counseling and the tools learned in therapy which can serve them throughout their lifetime can help reduce the rate of suicides, Michaelson Jenet said.

Holm-Denoma said while schools are struggling with resources in all areas, using time in the classroom to help start conversations about emotional and social well being could provide exponential benefits in the long run.

“Even at the preschool level, if schools focus on social and emotional wellbeing curriculum the students have lower rates of problems and do better academically,” Holm-Denoma said. “It’s not taking away from traditional academic curriculum. It actually allows them to do better.”

While the state and local groups work to increase resources within schools, there are readily available to students outside of the school environment. A counselor can be reached 24/7 at 1-844-493-TALK (8255), if someone you know is exhibiting signs of suicidal idealization and depression, students can make an anonymous report through the Safe2Tell website at Safe2Tell.org. Students and adults can also text 741741 to get in touch with a counselor through the Crisis Text Line.

Social media and suicide

Facebook is turning to artificial intelligence to detect if someone might be contemplating suicide.

Facebook already has mechanisms for flagging posts from people thinking about harming themselves. The new feature is intended to detect such posts before anyone reports them.

The service will scan posts and live video with a technique called “pattern recognition.” For example, comments from friends such as “are you ok?” can indicate suicidal thoughts.

Facebook has already been testing the feature in the U.S. and is making it available in most other countries. The European Union is excluded, though; Facebook won’t say why.

The company is also using AI to prioritize the order that flagged posts are sent to its human moderators so they can quickly alert local authorities.

Researchers studying a spike in teen suicides in Utah found that 18 of the 150 youngsters who took their own lives in a five-year period had recently lost privileges to use their electronic devices such as phones, tablets and gaming systems, according to a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report made public last week.

The report was released after outside researchers earlier this month issued findings based on CDC data showing an increase in suicide rates among teens across the U.S. over the 2010-2015 period occurred at the same time social media use surged. Teen suicides had declined in the two previous decades.

Both reports stop short of blaming electronics and social media for the rise in suicides, but say the findings beg for more research on the topic.

The findings add to a growing body of research that raise serious questions about whether young people who spend many hours on social media are more at risk for relationship problems, said Michael Friedrichs, a Utah state epidemiologist who was among those who spoke at a Thursday news conference in Salt Lake City.

More than half — 55 percent — of the Utah suicides from 2011-2015 had experienced a recent crisis, most of which were family or dating relationships, the report found.

“A social media connection or a phone connection is not a substitute for a real connection,” said Michael Friedrichs, a Utah state epidemiologist. “People need to go outside. . . .There is a lack of connectness that is not satisfied by being tethered to a gadget.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.