Three tragic deaths re­ver­ber­ate across U.S. as sui­cides climb steadily to 47,000 a year

The Buffalo News - - NATIONAL NEWS - By Joel Achen­bach, Wil­liam Wan and Katie Met­tler

Amer­i­cans are in­creas­ingly likely to die by their own hand. In 1999, about 29,000 peo­ple in the U.S. killed them­selves, and by 2017 the toll had grown to more than 47,000, a sig­nif­i­cant rise even when ad­justed for the grow­ing pop­u­la­tion. In re­cent days, three of those deaths have shocked the na­tion.

Two teenage sur­vivors of the Park­land, Fla., school shoot­ing of 2018 ap­par­ently died by sui­cide, as did the fa­ther of one of the chil­dren slain at Sandy Hook El­e­men­tary School in New­town, Mass., in 2012. Both com­mu­ni­ties are in mourn­ing.

Men­tal health ex­perts ad­vise cau­tion in mo­ments like th­ese. There is a per­sis­tent con­cern about con­ta­gion ef­fects, the risk that peo­ple who hear about sui­cides will be more likely to end their own lives. And ex­perts say it can be dif­fi­cult to draw spe­cific con­clu­sions from in­di­vid­ual deaths in which the con­tribut­ing fac­tors are not fully un­der­stood. Ev­ery sui­cide is a unique tragedy.

But th­ese deaths pro­vide an op­por­tu­nity to con­front a na­tional pub­lic health cri­sis as sui­cides be­come more com­mon. Re­searchers who study sui­cide say the field is grossly un­der­funded. They say they have min­i­mal un­der­stand­ing of who, ex­actly, is most at risk of sui­cide.

The ba­sic ques­tion raised in re­cent days – what is the link be­tween sur­viv­ing ex­treme trauma and the sub­se­quent risk for self-harm – is not read­ily an­swered.

“We know that ad­verse child­hood ex­pe­ri­ences are linked to many ‘bad’ out­comes – sui­cides, drug fa­tal­i­ties are ex­am­ples – but we don’t know how much higher that risk is, as no one has stud­ied folks over the course of time com­par­ing di­verse out­comes against di­verse ex­pe­ri­ences,” said Eric Caine, a re­searcher at the Univer­sity of Rochester Med­i­cal Cen­ter. “And, in­deed, the vast, vast ma­jor­ity of abused, trau­ma­tized folks don’t kill them­selves.”

At a more per­sonal level, the news bul­letins pro­vide a re­minder to ev­ery­one that peo­ple who are trau­ma­tized need con­tin­ued care – that the trauma doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily re­cede in a week, or a month, or even a year. Peo­ple who are suf­fer­ing should be re­minded that they can reach out, that help is avail­able (in­clud­ing at the sui­cide hot­line 800-273-TALK). And sup­port net­works – friends, fam­ily mem­bers, pro­fes­sion­als – need to stay vig­i­lant.

“In the sec­ond year, friends and fam­ily are no longer check­ing on you as much. The first year, you may have dis­tracted your­self or taken on other things to move for­ward, but you get fa­tigued over time. That comes at a price and you can’t al­ways sus­tain it as well,” said David Schon­feld, direc­tor of the Na­tional Cen­ter for School Cri­sis and Be­reave­ment at the Univer­sity of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, who is an ex­pert on mass shoot­ings and has been work­ing as con­sul­tant to the Broward County, Fla., school dis­trict in the year since the Park­land shoot­ing.

But Schon­feld said that, even though sur­vivors are never quite the same, they of­ten emerge with new cop­ing strate­gies, a stronger sense of pur­pose in life, and what he calls a post­trau­matic growth ef­fect. The pub­lic should not ex­pect sur­vivors to be de­pressed or sui­ci­dal, he said.

“We should be com­mu­ni­cat­ing the ex­pec­ta­tion of re­cov­ery,” he said.

The Park­land stu­dent body be­came na­tion­ally fa­mous as many Mar­jory Stone­man Dou­glas High School stu­dents cam­paigned to end gun vi­o­lence. That was an ex­pe­ri­ence unique among mass shoot­ing sur­vivors, and the stu­dents op­er­ate amid great ex­pec­ta­tions and with many peo­ple watch­ing them, noted Jane Pear­son, a sui­cide re­searcher at the Na­tional In­sti­tute of Men­tal Health.

“It’s dif­fer­ent than nor­mal griev­ing, or even griev­ing that comes af­ter a nat­u­ral and man-made dis­as­ter. This is griev­ing in the wake of a man-made mur­der dis­as­ter,” she said.

Sui­cide is the 10th most com­mon cause of death in the U.S., but the sec­ond most com­mon among teenagers and young adults. The death rate from sui­cide is ris­ing broadly, among al­most all de­mo­graphic groups. Ex­perts can­not eas­ily ex­plain it. There is no sin­gle fac­tor driv­ing the phe­nom­e­non.

“We grossly un­der­fund sui­cide re­search,” said April Fore­man, a psy­chol­o­gist and ex­ec­u­tive board mem­ber of the Amer­i­can As­so­ci­a­tion of Sui­ci­dol­ogy who spe­cial­izes in treat­ing pa­tients at high risk of sui­cide. “What we don’t un­der­stand very well as sci­en­tists is who’s go­ing to be sui­ci­dal … We don’t have the blood pres­sure cuff of men­tal health. I wish that we did. We don’t have the ther­mome­ter of sui­cide risk.”

One the­ory for the rise in sui­cides in the U.S. is that it has lost some of its cul­tural stigma.

The rise of so­cial media and al­wayson­line life­styles could also be a fac­tor, said Jean Twenge, a pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­ogy at San Diego State Univer­sity who has writ­ten a book about “iGen,” the gen­er­a­tion that has come of age dur­ing the iPhone era.

She said re­search shows that sui­ci­dal thoughts among peo­ple aged 18 or 19 in­creased 46 per­cent from 2008 to 2017, and sui­cide at­tempts among peo­ple 22 to 23 years old dou­bled.

Tri­bune News Ser­vice

Stu­dents par­tic­i­pate in a can­dle­light vigil in Or­lando, Fla., last month to com­mem­o­rate the one-year an­niver­sary of the mass shoot­ing at Mar­jory Stone­man Dou­glas High School. Two sur­vivors of the Park­land, Fla., school shoot­ing com­mit­ted sui­cide in re­cent days, shock­ing the na­tion.

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