New Snohomish County task force aims to stop youth suicide

The Youth Suicide Prevention Task Force was formed last April. Members hope to educate the public.

Content warning: This story contains discussion of self-harm and suicide.

EVERETT — A phone call can save a life. That’s a lesson Wendy Burchill learned last year when her son called to say his best friend was in crisis.

The son knew his mother would know what to do because of her expertise in youth mental health and suicide prevention.

He was right. Burchill knew exactly what to do — she called the friend’s parent, who then got in touch with a school counselor. The friend got mental health care in time to save his life.

Burchill, a healthy communities specialist with the Snohomish Health District, was among a group who formed the county’s new Youth Suicide Prevention Task Force. The mission is to educate the county about youth suicide prevention and intervention.

“The goal is for more families to know what to do in these situations,” Burchill said. “Don’t brush it off as attention-seeking. It might be, but you still need to take that statement of potentially harming themselves seriously. They’re seeking attention because they need help.”

The task force was formed last April as an offshoot of the county Children’s Wellness Coalition. Its 20 members went through an application process and were appointed after a vote by the coalition. A diverse range of disciplines is represented, including health care workers, mental health professionals and the county medical examiner’s office.

Two to three youth representatives may soon be added to the task force, Burchill said. Details surrounding the youth positions had yet to be decided Monday, she said, but they are in the works.

September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among youth in Washington state. It’s the 10th-leading cause of death overall in the U.S.

Last week, a Daily Herald reporter met with some members of the county task force to learn about suicide prevention.

Group members advised people to follow a three-step process — known by the acronym ACT — when they encounter somebody who may be in danger of self-harm:

• “Acknowledge” is step 1 — take warning signs of self-harm seriously. The majority of people who die by suicide had given some indication to somebody of their intention to harm themselves.

• “Care” is step 2 voice concern to the person in a mental health crisis and express understanding while remaining calm.

• “Treatment” is step 3. The person in crisis should be immediately referred to a mental health professional, crisis center, local hospital emergency department or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

From August 2019 to August 2020, there were no youth suicide deaths in Snohomish County, Burchill said. The next year — September 2020 to September 2021 — saw an uptick, with five youth deaths by suicide reported in the county.

Burchill, a coordinator for the county health district’s Child Death Review, said a number of “protective factors” contributed to the low suicide death rate among children from 2019 to 2020.

With remote schooling, many children could get more sleep — something data have shown reduces the likelihood of mental illness. Children also spent more time around family and pets — both known to help youth who struggle with their mental health.

The decrease in commitments for homebound children, coupled with lessened academic pressure, were also considered protective factors, Burchill said.

“Youth who die by suicide tend to do it alone,” Burchill said. “They either leave the home or do it when they’re home alone. When everybody is home, there are more eyes on these kids, whether it’s a healthy environment or not. Having all these adults and siblings around may be a deterrent.”

With children back in schools, the task force plans to work closely with schools and other community organizations to teach people how to respond to mentions of self-harm.

Task force member Natalie Gustafson works with educators in her job with the Northwest Educational Service District. She urged youth to reach out to a trusted adult if they, or somebody they know, is showing warning signs of suicidal ideation.

“As a task force, we as adults want to make more adults available who know what to do when a kid tells them about a mental health crisis,” Gustafson said.

If you or someone you know is thinking about self-harm, help is out there. Call 800-273-TALK for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Ellen Dennis: 425-339-3486;; Twitter: @reporterellen

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