‘Stunning’ increase in teen suicides in Snohomish County

EVERETT — Health officials have documented a sobering statistic in Snohomish County: 13 young people, including two 12-year-olds, have committed suicide since September.

That’s more than double the number in recent years, according to the Snohomish Health District, which released the information Tuesday.

And there’s more grim news. A survey of nearly 12,000 high school and middle school students in the county found that nearly one in five report they’ve given serious thought to ending their lives.

“The fact that you’ve got all these young people who feel so isolated, who really feel they have no one they can turn to, and that the only resource is to kill themselves to me is just stunning,” said Dr. Gary Goldbaum, health officer for the Snohomish Health District. “It shouldn’t happen at all. I don’t think there’s any other way to look at it than a kid who commits suicide is a real failing of society.”

Eight of the 13 suicides were between the ages of 17 and 19. Five were among 12- to 16-year-olds. Ten were boys and three were girls. Six used handguns to kill themselves and six hanged themselves. The method of death in the 13th suicide was not immediately available.

Since 2009, the number of annual youth suicides in Snohomish County has ranged between one and six deaths a year.

Goldbaum said no one knows why the number of youth suicides was so high this school year.

Most of the suicides occurred near the beginning and the end of the school year, he said. They include 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.

One of the most recent occurred May 7, the same day the girl and her father met with teachers at Everett’s Evergreen Middle School to talk about her failing grades, records show.

The seventh-grader helped start a cheer squad at school but was told that if she didn’t improve her grades, she wouldn’t be able to be part of the club. That afternoon she participated in the squad’s first performance at a track meet. Hours later, she hanged herself in her bedroom.

The health district, concerned about students feeling isolated from their peers over the summer, sent out fliers to school districts on what resources are available to help. One option is an anonymous instant message service, another is a toll-free hotline. Both are run by Volunteers of America, and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Although the message service is open to people of all ages, about half those using it on any given day are younger than 25, said Rena Fitzgerald, program manager.

“Most of the youth we’re talking to are very reluctant to get help from the adults in their world,” she said. “They open up to us a lot more and tell us a lot more than any teen I’ve talked to on the phone would,” she said. Young people often say they don’t seek out help from adults because they don’t want to be a burden on their family or school counselor, Fitzgerald said.

The Healthy Youth Survey, conducted in October by the health district as part of statewide effort, found suicidal thoughts are common among local kids.

Some 11,852 local sixth-, eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders in school districts throughout the county participated in the wide-ranging questionnaire. Students were quizzed on wide-ranging issues, including substance abuse, diet, dating violence, physical and mental well-being and school bullying.

Survey results show significant numbers of students had seriously considered suicide.

The highest numbers were reported among 10th-graders, with 21.2 percent saying they had seriously considered taking their lives. Seniors weren’t far behind with 18.7 percent; among eighth-graders it was 17.2 percent. Perhaps most surprising were the 16.2 percent of sixth-graders who said they had contemplated suicide.

Nearly one in five surveyed students reported they did not have a parent or trusted adult that they feel comfortable confiding in for asking for help.

The county survey results mirror closely what the statewide survey found.

It’s clear that despite the numerous social media venues for youth to connect, “I think a lot of kids feel even more isolated,” Goldbaum said.

The suicide of the 12-year-old Evergreen Middle School student shows that the reasons for the suicide may be complex, an Everett police investigation found. The girl left behind a note, which has not been disclosed.

The week after her death, dozens of students walked out of classes calling for an end to bullying as the girl’s father and some of his friends looked on. He told TV reporters that his daughter had been bullied.

A police investigation into the girl’s death revealed that she had struggled with depression and coping with the pressures of adolescence. Her father sought help for her, monitored her Facebook account and met with school staff about his concerns.

Investigators were told that the girl began cutting herself about three years ago, around the same time her mother moved out of the state. School staff learned of her self-harm behavior last year and helped her father get her into counseling at Catholic Community Services, according to police records.

The girl was doing well academically the first semester but her grades began to slip during the second semester. School staff learned the girl was no longer attending counseling.

The school psychologist spoke with the child’s therapist who said the girl wanted to take a break from counseling. She also noted that her father had made two appointments in April for his daughter but they later were canceled.

Police found the number for Snohomish County’s Crisis Line written on whiteboard in the family’s kitchen. There also was a note from her dad. “Keep up the good work. Finish the floors and dishes.”

The day after the walk-out at the school an investigator met with Evergreen’s principal. He told the detective that the girl would be the first to come to the office and talk with an adult if she was having a problem with another student. He wasn’t aware of any recent reports of bullying. She had reported one incident in November.

The detective was told the girl was social and active at school.

Police found a homemade booklet on the floor of the girl’s room. There were drawings and writings that referenced self-harm and a poem about suicide. Some of the writings alluded to hurtful things being said to the girl.

Wendy Burchill, a Healthy Communities specialist at the Snohomish Health District, said adults should look for signs of depression in teens such as changes in eating or sleeping habits, sadness, and loss of interest in things they normally enjoy.

“Treat every mention of suicidal thoughts seriously,” Burchill said. “Don’t pass it off as a joke or ploy for attention.”

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

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