Despite taboo suicide plays role in everyday lives of Americans

This month alone more than 400 Americans under the age of 25 will choose to end their lives.

Suicide was the second leading cause of death for young Americans between the ages of 10 and 24 in 2015, with an increase of more than 150 percent since 1981 for ages 10-14.

Maricopa County recorded 683 suicide deaths in 2016. The youngest suicide recorded was age 9. Arizona is seeing a 60 percent increase in its suicide rate compared to the rest of the country.

“If there was a virus or bacteria taking 100 of our youth each week, what would be happening? You would hear about this virus on the radio. Nightly news broadcasts would be covering the topic extensively,” said The Jason Foundation Director of Business Development and Public Relations, Brett Marciel, in a Nov. 16 statement.

“We would have legislators coming out to talk about what we can do to stop this virus that just took 100-plus lives this week.”

Numbers show, on average, about 113 suicides occur weekly in the United States of America.

The Jason Foundation, Inc. is a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization dedicated to the prevention of the “silent epidemic” of youth suicide through educational awareness programs.

The organization was born in October 1997, after Jason Flatt died by suicide at the age of 16.

“The Jason Foundation, Inc. was born from a disastrous event in 1997,” Mr. Marciel explained. “Jason was your typical All-American 16 year old. He was an athlete, solid B student, active in his church group, had a lot of friends, and had no alcohol or drug problems.

“As we often describe young people, Jason seemed to ‘have everything to live for.’ However, the decision he made on July 16 changed the lives of his family and friends forever.”

While youth suicide statistics are staggering, the issue is prevalent in nearly every age group.

Numbers show that in 2014, suicide was the fourth leading cause of death for people between the ages of 35 and 44 and 45 and 54; and eighth leading cause for ages 55-64.

While there is not one single culprit to blame for the wide-ranging preventative issue, there is an under-swell of help trying to reach as many individuals as possible.

From nonprofit groups, to local school and public safety entities, people are extending their arms to those in need of support.

In Arizona, a suicide occurs every seven hours on average. Globally, 800,000 people die by suicide each year, according to the World Health Organization.

Of Scottsdale’s 220,000 residents, the state average says 34 will choose to take their own life this year.

Readers looking for help should call 1-800-273-8255 or text 741-741.

‘I never thought I would be affected by suicide’

One woman who spoke with the Independent told of how suicide had shaped their lives and how that experience continues to play a role in how they deal with the world around them.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014 is a day that changed Diana Bowersox’s life forever.

“I was 30. It was incredibly hard to deal with. I was four months pregnant with my second child,” she said recalling the time when her brother, William J. Taylor shot himself dead following an argument in his home. He was 29 years old.

“I had to try as hard as I could to keep it together not only for my son, who was very confused, but for myself and the health of my baby. As cliche as it sounds, I never thought I’d be affected by suicide. My brother was tough. His life was rough. He was ‘better’ than that.”

Mrs. Bowersox said her life — and how she chooses to encounter others — was shaped by the experience of suddenly losing her brother.

“I’ve learned, through personal experience, losing him and then seeing friends lose family members to suicide, that it affects more people than you think. Suicide is everywhere,” she explained.

Mrs. Bowersox with her brother during their early years growing up in Pittsburgh, Penn. (submitted photos)

“It’s so prevalent today in teens. Bullying, social media, mental health. It all plays its part. No one is immune to it. I don’t see it as a selfish act anymore.”

Asked about who she thought her brother was, Mrs. Bowersox replied, “strong, funny, an amazing father, brother, son and friend.”

Mrs. Bowersox remembers a man who told the truth no matter the consequence.

“He was an incredible friend. He always told it how it was. Never held back, no matter how wrong I was, he set me straight,” she said. “And, he always kept me laughing. He was my only sibling.”

Mrs. Bowersox hails from Pittsburgh, Pa., bleeds Steeler black and yellow and is co-owner of a growing local business based in Chandler.

“It affects me every day. Every single day when I can’t call to share good news, or have someone to cry to,” she said of the profound loss.

“Or, when I need someone to talk to who wouldn’t dare pass judgment. Or, when I think about my parents and now I’m all alone. I think about his children and how much they need him.”

Mrs. Bowersox says she and her family, who are close-knit Midwestern folks, never saw this coming.

“Unfortunately, a lot of his past was drug related. He had been clean for years, and drugs had nothing to do with his suicide. Autopsy proven. He was the one who’d give you the shirt off his back, and lose it on you if you ever drove intoxicated,” she said.

“He was incredibly caring to those who were close to him. Very honorable. Very protective.”

But nothing ever suggested her brother would end his life with young children and a wife at home.

“This is a tough one. I think about our childhood. Our fun with our family. Fighting with each other as siblings do,” she said.

“Then I think about our teens and not being close at all. And then our 20s. We were so close. There was huge issue with steroids that were prescribed for his back pain. He could barely get out of bed.”

But the physical ailments were just the tip of the iceberg, Mrs. Bowersox recalls.

“His fiancé was giving him a hard time. His first daughter was not allowed to see him, and his current fiancé threatened to take their kids from him,” she said of unrest at home. “He was constantly made to feel like he wasn’t good enough by the two romantic relationships in his life. I think the steroids were a huge part of a snap-decision.”

Parents blame themselves and siblings are often left perplexed with only foggy memories of better times, Mrs. Bowersox explains.

“My dad carries a lot of guilt. They had a rough relationship. Not often a good one. I think it kills my dad every single day, and I think he feels responsible,” she said.

“My mom. My mom is tough. She’s been through a lot. Stage 4 cancer, divorce, loss of parents and friends and relatives, financial hardships. This is the one thing that has killed her the most. Every day is hard. We talk every single day. And I try so hard to make her feel a little better. The three of us were very close, and now one of our teammates is gone.”

Still, to this day, Mrs. Bowersox says she finds herself still coming to terms with the loss.

“I never, in my wildest dreams, would’ve imagined my brother committing suicide at this point in his life. Earlier on? Yes. While he was using drugs? Absolutely,” she said.

“Never when he did it, though. Never. Neither did any of his friends. In fact so many of his friends said to me at his funeral, ‘not Bill. Bill wouldn’t do this.’”

Treasure those in your life, Mrs. Bowersox says, because life is short and death is permanent.

“Be as kind as you possibly can to not just family and friends, but to strangers. You never know what someone is thinking or feeling or going through. Life can change in an instant,” she said.

Breaking myths

The social media giants — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat — feeds most everyone as users check their accounts morning, noon and night.

The effects of navigating through the most impressionable points of life, while immersed in an online reality is somewhat uncharted waters. The teens and young adults today are the first generation to be experiencing this new way of life at such a young age.

Mr. Marciel of the Jason Foundation says while social media can lead to depression, it can also be a tool for education and preventative resources.

“Facebook has launched a campaign to help identify users who may be exhibiting signs of suicidal thoughts,” Mr. Marciel said.

“There is no doubt that it can play a role in increasing depression for an individual or providing the means for cyber-bullying, which can increase the chance for suicidal ideation. But used correctly, it can also be a tool for education and resources for prevention.”

During this past September, Facebook released a press release illustrating the social media platform’s approach to thwart online-induced depression.

Through ads in the news feed, people will be connected with supportive groups and suicide prevention, the press release states. Additionally, a new section of the safety center will include resources about suicide prevention and online well being.

“People can access tools to resolve conflict online, help a friend who is expressing suicidal thoughts or get resources if they’re going through a difficult time,” the press release states.

“We’ve offered tools like these, developed in collaboration with mental health organizations, for more than 10 years. It’s part of our ongoing effort to help build a safe community on and off Facebook.”

The site’s safety center includes links, phone numbers and information for a number of countries worldwide, in addition to recommended steps if you witness a friend exhibiting suicidal behavior.

“Bullying is often looked to as a precursor to a suicide or attempt,” Mr. Marciel said. “While it is true that a young person who is being bullied is at a higher risk of attempting suicide, what is often overlooked is that the bully is also more susceptible to suicidal thoughts.”

Depression is one of the leading causes of suicide attempts, Mr. Marciel says, and oftentimes suicide is the result of an undiagnosed or undertreated mental illness.

“In summation, there is no one cause for the increase that we are seeing, but I believe a multitude of factors,” he explained.

Suicide should not be a taboo subject. It’s important, Mr. Marciel says, that people talk about the topic in the right way.

“It is a myth that speaking to someone about suicide will put the idea in their head. That just isn’t true. That being said, it is of utmost importance that we speak about suicide in a way that is not detrimental.”

School solutions

Within the Scottsdale Unified School District, suicide prevention appears to be established within the district’s schools.

In total, SUSD educates about 24,000 students across 29 campuses. Suicide has touched Scottsdale Schools in years past, Shannon Cronn, SUSD clinical services coordinator says.

“SUSD provides suicide prevention and intervention training and crisis response training to all SUSD administrators, psychologists, counselors and school social workers,” Ms. Cronn said in a Nov. 17 emailed response to questions.

“Campuses are encouraged to develop mental health teams to help support the social, emotional and behavioral needs of students and support staff is trained to complete risk assessments and student safety plans.”

In the district’s five high schools, a preventative program called Signs of Suicide has been adopted, Ms. Cronn says.

“The program aims to increase awareness of depression and suicide, identify risk factors, and seek help using the ACT (Acknowledge, Care, Tell) strategy,” Ms. Cronn says. “The ACT acronym is placed on the back of student IDs along with the teen hotline phone number.”

Since 2007, the youth suicide rate for girls has increased three-fold; while boys have increased two-fold. While there aren’t necessarily specific trends, the biggest concern is information students can access online. Ms. Cronn points to websites that actually promote suicide and self-harm.

“The ongoing challenge is to continue to decrease the stigma associated with mental health disorders and seeking help,” she says, noting how the topic is discussed more openly now than in years past.

The Jason Foundation, Inc., whose focus is on youth suicide prevention, also says the rate of youth suicides is increasing.

“We do not, however, have a definitive answer as to why. There are plenty of speculations, though,” Mr. Marciel said.

“One reason could be better reporting of suicidal deaths. The stigma surrounding mental health issues has been lessening recently, but even 10 or 15 years ago this was a topic that not many people would want to discuss.”

Mr. Marciel says some families may not want their loved one’s death ruled as a suicide, and that it has been estimated suicides are more frequent than data shows.

“It has been estimated that the number of suicides in the country would be 30-50 percent higher if we accounted for misreported suicides,” he said. “These are the one-car accidents on a bright and sunny day, the accidental overdoses, and accidental gunshot wounds.”

The public safety perspective remains neutral

Both Scottsdale police and fire departments seek to provide compassion for those affected by suicide.

“The police department may respond to an individual, or reference, an individual that has suicide ideations, has attempted to end their life, or has died by suicide,” said Scottsdale Police Department Crisis Intervention Supervisor Tracey Wilkinson in a Nov. 16 statement.

“The response and role is dependent upon the call for service. Police Crisis Intervention Specialists may be called to all three types of calls for service. If an individual has attempted to end their life, they are most often transported for emergency medical care. If the individual has died by suicide, the police officers/detectives conduct a death investigation.”

Public safety officials are quick to point out first responders are not immune to the mental health travails of helping those in need as many in law enforcement believe suicide rates are particularly numerous amongst their ranks.

“We live the ‘we care for you’ motto in the stations monitoring each other and asking questions when deemed necessary,” said Scottsdale Fire Department Division Chief Mark Zimmerman in a Nov. 14 statement to the Independent.

“Resources and assistance are made available when needed to help the employee stay in front of the problem or issue.”

The National Fire Protection Association issued an update to its membership in November 2016 acknowledging the heavy mental toll a law enforcement professional endears on a shift-to-shift basis.

“Along with serving the community, first responders come across many situations that affect the community and individuals they serve, but many times there are underlying circumstances that are not readily apparent,” the association reported to its membership.

“Fire fighters are not immune to these same types of circumstances. Not only are they caring for and providing assistance to individuals, they are still human beings with their own life situations. They provide for their families or themselves. There are times when it is easy to disassociate from an incident to which they’re responded. But there are other times when a connection can directly affect the mental well-being and behavioral health of the fire fighter.”

Chief Zimmerman points out Scottsdale fire is actively providing resources and assistance to those who need it.

Supervisor Wilkinson echoes a similar sentiment.

“The Scottsdale Police Department has demonstrated concerns for our community members and the risk of suicide, for many years,” she said. “The Police Crisis Intervention program was created in 1975. The Scottsdale Police Department has had a Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) of officers since 2003.”

‘A prisoner in your own life’

Scottsdale resident Christie Lee Kinchen’s father committed suicide when she and her twin sister were toddlers.

“I have a twin sister and our dad killed himself (when we were) 18 months old. That is just something as a kid you can’t really wrap your head around,” she said in a Nov. 7 phone interview.

A view of a happy and healthy Christie Lee Kinchen, who is a Scottsdale resident and local business owner. (submitted photo)

“It has taken our entire lives to understand why he did what he did. Our family sheltered us from what happened until we were adults and I think that was the wrong thing to do. I feel pretty much that I have struggled with depression and anxiety my whole life.”

Ms. Kinchen has struggled to understand her mental health and how those around her shaped her negative perceptions. She has survived three suicide attempts.

“You just get to a point that you are a prisoner in your own life. There are so many things that happened to me that made me feel like I didn’t want to be around anymore,” she said.

“My first husband, he verbally abused me all the time. I married him because I was attacked and for a time I felt safe. I have been verbally attacked. I have been sexually attacked. Things that people would have never thought could happen.”

Despite success — Ms. Kinchen is co-founder of a successful Scottsdale-based boutique real estate firm — she often did not feel at home in her own skin.

“My medical diagnosis is that I have borderline personality disorder,” she pointed out. She is an incredibly empathetic person and admits sometimes she has a hard time managing her emotions, both positive and negative.

“Dialectical Behavior Therapy has helped me a lot. You are trying to retrain your brain. If I am having a really bad day I have tools that I can help find meaning in my life.”

After one of her suicide attempts, Ms. Kinchen recalls walking out of the emergency room on Christmas Day 2012 looking to put her crisis behind her.

“I have learned that my downfall and what put my life in danger was that I didn’t want to burden my problems on anyone. I thought, ‘they don’t want to hear from me,’” she said.

“What always sticks out in my mind is that I need to reach out to someone when I am down like that.”

Ms. Kinchen says admitting to herself it’s OK to seek the conversation of others has been a game-changer for her ability to navigate the highs and lows of her emotions as life unfolds day to day.

“My twin sister is the closest human being to me. Learning that I can call, text or message my support system is the biggest thing for me,” she said. “That is what causes people to get to the point of taking their own lives, is because they feel like they don’t have someone to talk to.”

*Statistics in this story are from: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Arizona Department of Health Services and The Jason Foundation, Inc.

The editorial team can be reached at ScottsdaleNews@Newszap.com.

Northeast Valley News Services Editor Melissa Rosequist can be e-mailed at mrosequist@newszap.com or can be followed on Twitter at twitter.com/mrosequist_.

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