Dubbed an epidemic by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide rates among Americans have been on the uptick in 49 states over the past 20 years. Among teens, suicide is the second leading cause of death, just behind unintentional injuries.
Aaron Gooch, Joplin police and school resource officer at North Middle School, told Joplin Rotary members Thursday during a teen suicide prevention forum that the “circle of influence,” as he’s dubbed it, is much more prominent than it ever used to be.
“With social media and areas where (students) have access to information and (those sources) have access to them … that’s the big part of the problem.”
Aaron Garcia, a nurse practitioner and co-founder of SOS Ministries, said when he was 16, he had to lug around the green-screened Nokia phone that made phone calls. Nowadays, teens have the world at their fingertips with their mobile devices.
“I’ve been reading articles that found children are now so fully stimulated (with information) that their brains can’t catch up to what’s going on, so that increases stress, anxiety and depression,” he said. And while teens are bombarded constantly with stimulations of one kind or another, “it’s hard for them to get away from it. And in the next 10 years, (technology access) will double from where it is now.”
“I think that’s one area to look at — the amount of information kids are getting” these days, he said.
During the 28-minute presentation, Ozark Center’s Debbie Fitzgerald told the gathering that, by the time the forum wrapped up at 1 p.m., “five to six people will have just taken their lives somewhere in the United States.”
“One statistic I’m afraid that Jasper County cannot be proud of is that we rank in the top 10 counties in the state of Missouri for deaths by suicides since 2001,” she said. Based on 2016 statistics, the latest data available, she said 51 residents in Southwest Missouri — Barton, Jasper, Newton and McDonald County — committed suicide in 2016. And of those 51 individuals, 25 percent were considered youths, with the youngest being 11 years old.
But, Fitzgerald said, suicide is also the most preventable cause of death. It’s up to parents to keep dialogue open with their teens and to observe their behaviors and moods.
“We talk to our kids about driving safely, about safe practices on the internet, about sex education, alcohol — we must be willing to talk about” suicide, she said. There are plenty of resources available to help teens and their parents. Those include crisis intervention services provided by Ozark Center, including “TxtAboutit,” a secure and anonymous communication service that allows a teen in pain to seek help quickly.
“I think the stigma of suicide has come down, (and) children are seeking more help and being more open with their parents and counselors, but I think as parents we should stay available, like all the time — looking for behaviors that might not be appropriate or original … and talking to them. I think those are very important things to do.”