Youth suicides in county more than doubled in a year

EVERETT — It stunned school, public health and community leaders: Youth suicide rates in Snohomish County more than doubled in one year.

A dozen youths, including a 12-year-old, took their lives in 2015. Half used firearms; the others hanged themselves, according to the Snohomish Health District. That compares with five youth suicides in 2014.

“The suicides in 2015 are a wake-up call to all of us that this is a serious problem and we really need community-wide action,” said Dr. Gary Goldbaum, health officer for the Snohomish Health District.

Multiple youth suicides occurred in some cities during 2015, including three in Stanwood, and two each in Everett and Mukilteo. A single student suicide was reported in Monroe, Marysville, Snohomish, Bothell and Lynnwood.

After reviewing the deaths, some of the common factors were a history of depression, self harm such as cutting, access to firearms and high-achieving students whose academic performance noticeably declined.

The jump in suicides last year was one factor that led to the creation of a free, one-day mental health fair focusing on childhood and parenting issues. It’s scheduled from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. May 7 at Evergreen Middle School in Everett. Sixteen workshops will be presented on topics such as signs and symptoms of depression and anxiety, bullying and building a strong parent-child bond.

“This is a terrific resource for the community,” Goldbaum said. “This isn’t about knowing we have a problem but doing something about the problem.”

So far this year, there has been one confirmed student suicide. An 18-year-old from Marysville killed himself April 21. He was enrolled in a program called Open Doors Youth Reengagement, according to the Marysville School District. The program assists students who have dropped out of school or are not expected to graduate from high school by the age of 21.

Wendy Burchill, a Healthy Communities specialist for the health district, said she has reviewed suicide cases since 2002, and typically there are between one and five youth suicides countywide each year.

Snohomish Health District officials were so concerned about the rising number of youth suicides last year that they released information totaling the numbers for the 2014-2015 school year. The data included Jaylen Fryberg, the 15-year-old who killed four classmates in a Marysville Pilchuck High School cafeteria Oct. 24, 2014, before turning the gun on himself.

Since the school year overlaps the calendar year, some of the 12 youth suicides in 2015 have previously been reported.

The last two were in Mukilteo during December and separated by 10 days. They involved a middle school girl, 13, and a high school boy, 16. It’s not thought they knew each other, but suicides “have a huge ripple effect,” because friends of the siblings who died are affected, too, Burchill said.

Some of the suicides, such as the December deaths in Mukilteo, occurred during breaks in the school year. Such breaks take kids out of their routines. “For a lot of kids, school is their safe zone,” Burchill said. “They don’t want to be isolated at home.”

A group of local experts, including representatives from public health, the medical examiner’s office, law enforcement, the juvenile court system, the county’s Human Services department and school counselors meet several times a year to review childhood deaths to look for trends.

They have discussed whether extra support should be available to students during school year breaks. This could include opening community centers for longer hours or providing activities at schools during breaks, Burchill said.

State law requires public schools to provide suicide-prevention training to middle and high school students. In Marysville, the program began this year at Cedarcrest Middle School and it will be provided to all middle and high school students during the next school year.

“Prevention, prevention, the earlier the better,” said Josh Webb, the district’s director of counseling. “We know that asking a student about suicide or depression doesn’t plant the idea in their brain.”

In the Edmonds School District, all middle and high school students received suicide prevention training this school year. Middle school students are told that “if they hear anything or see anything that concerns them, it’s their job to tell a trusted adult,” said JoAnna Rockwood, a school psychologist at Alderwood Middle School.

Edmonds high school students are shown a videotaped presentation with interviews from young people who have survived suicide and with the parents and friends of youth who ended their own lives.

One of the things that surprised those who studied Snohomish County’s youth suicides is how many were high-achieving students.

“There’s the stereotype that it’s the loners,” Burchill said. Most of the students were involved in their school community, either academically or athletically.

While caring adults may want to look for a pattern, “with suicide there is no pattern,” said Gabrielle Fraley, a Snohomish Health District epidemiologist. “That’s why we want to emphasize that just because your child has a lot of friends or seems happy, you never know what’s going on in their head unless you talk to them.”

Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486; salyer@heraldnet.com.

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