Opinion

Coping with a youth suicide close to home | Klaas

Teen suicide is a horrible thing and a growing health concern.

According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, it is the third-leading cause of death for young people ages 15 to 24, surpassed only by homicide and accidents.

Such a rare, unfortunate act struck close to home March 3 when a Green River Community College international student from China was found dead on the walking trail near campus.

Auburn police say that the student took his life. The Reporter's policy is not to disclose his name.

According to college officials, the Chinese consulate was informed, the student's family notified.

"Some people had no idea, other students were shocked by it," said May Huang, a sophomore at GRCC.

Huang and other students are upset that college officials didn't directly and widely inform them of the incident.

"I am very disappointed at my school for never officially releasing this information to all students as well as to the community," Huang said. "... While international students did receive an official email, and there was a post on Facebook from a worker from International Programs (on her personal page), the entire school hasn't been notified."

But Ross Jennings, GRCC vice president of International Programs & Extended Learning, said students and staff were notified of the death on the day it happened.

"We have had three counseling and remembrance sessions specifically for students, two the week of the death and one last week, in which the name of the student was identified," Jennings responded in an email. "The school newspaper also ran a detailed article about the suicide, also giving the name of the student."

Huang's concern is understandable. She no longer takes her dog for walks along the trail.

For other students, it remains an emotional time.

"It's a terrible, scary tragedy," said one freshman student, who wanted to remain anonymous. "We tend to look the other way when a suicide happens, but we can't here. It happened to one of our classmates, and we must deal with it as best as we can."

More than anything, students at Green River want to increase community awareness of the suicide issue.

Taking it a step further, a committee of experts has convened to review deaths of young people in King County and is calling for action to prevent them, after a high number of such suicides in 2012.

Last year, 11 children died by suicide, according to the King County Medical Examiner's office. That compares to four suicides in an average year among children younger than 18 years of age.

In recent years, the highest number of youth suicides in any one year had been seven, based on a review of data from 1999 to the present. While the numbers do not represent a statistical trend, the suicides are worrisome.

The King County Child Death Review Committee recommends increasing public awareness of the warning signs of suicide and risk factors for suicidal behavior and available crisis response resources. The committee also wants assurance that medical and mental health care providers are trained to screen children for suicide and mental health risk factors and able to connect youth to resources or treatment.

"Suicide is everyone's business," said Victoria Wagner, executive director of the Youth Suicide Prevention Program, a statewide nonprofit organization based in King County.

State leaders have listened.

Gov. Jay Inslee is expected to sign House Bill 2315 Thursday, which calls for expanding the state's capacity to help suicidal persons and save lives. The new law would extend suicide risk assessment, management and treatment training requirements to doctors and nurses working in primary care settings. It also calls for Washington's Department of Health to develop a state plan to reduce lives lost to suicide across age groups.

Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines (33rd Legislative District), a leader in the suicide prevention movement, is the prime sponsor of the legislation.

Orwall stepped in to do more for suicide prevention after a University of Washington professor whose husband had committed suicide approached her.

"I knew there was more we could be doing," Orwall said.

The UW has since become a partner with Orwall in her mission. Washington has become a national leader in requiring suicide prevention training for its medical professionals and providers.

But much more work needs to be done, especially with other high-risk groups, like college students.

"Early intervention is highly effective," Orwall said. "Unfortunately, Washington has a 15-percent higher suicide rate than the national average ... and we've stepped to the forefront (of the problem)."

The Crisis Clinic offers telephone-based emotional support to those experiencing stress or problems, and can provide referral to counselors for mental health support. The clinic's 24-hour help line is 206-461-3222 or toll free at 866-4CRISIS (866-427-4747).

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