Even prior to the pandemic, suicide was the most prominent cause of death in 12- to 19-year-olds in Nevada. (CCSD photo)
If just one person on Kevin Hines’ bus ride to the Golden Gate Bridge had bothered to see his pain, he says he may not have jumped off the bridge.
Hines, who survived the 225 foot fall in 2000, says he was a mess on the bus — crying and screaming at the voices in his head, the result of a psychiatric disorder..
“‘What’s wrong with this kid?’” Hines recalls a passenger gesturing at him and saying to a man sitting next to him. “With a smile on his face.”
Hines was among the 1 percent of people who survive jumping from the bridge.
“I prayed on the way down that I would live. I had instantaneous regret for my actions,” he says. A sea lion, he says, kept him afloat until a coast guard rescued him.
Hines says the demons haven’t disappeared since the day he tried to end his life but he no longer suffers quietly.
“Never again silence your pain,” Hines said during a two-hour forum on mental health Monday conducted by the Clark County School District. “If no one else says it today, we love you and we want you to stay.”
“People want to be talked out of it. They want someone to save them,” says Dr. Kelly Posner, a Professor of Psychiatry at Columbia University. “What we need is a culture where no one is afraid to ask.”
Nevada schools have used the Columbia Lighthouse method of combating suicide for more than seven years, and the protocol is used in all 50 states, experts say.
“Honor the suffering and break the silence,” Posner says of the Columbia method, a revolutionary approach based on a simple question.
“Have you wished you were dead or have you had thoughts about killing yourself? A ‘yes’ answer warrants further questioning,” says Posner. “It’s the first thing that’s actually reduced suicide.”
Now, she says, experts are able to quantify risk factors.
Suicide kills more firefighters than fire, and more police officers than crime. It’s the number one cause of death among construction workers, according to Posner.
Ten percent of high schoolers have tried to take their own lives. “That was before COVID,” she says.
A slight reduction in youth suicide the last year is cause for hope, Posner says, except in disadvantaged populations, where the rate is rising.
While the nation has experienced a two percent decline in suicide the last year, it’s gone up among minorities.
Suicide among five year-olds has increased, “but only among African American students,” Posner says.
During the pandemic, when Americans avoided hospitals at all costs, trips to the emergency room for mental health treatment increased 24 percent nationwide, according to Posner.
“This crisis has just blown open what has been in our DNA for awhile,” said state Superintendent of Education, Jhone Ebert, who says six years ago Nevada had 29 social workers in schools. “Today we have over 400.”
Posner says 90 percent of people who kill themselves had undiagnosed mental illness.
“Depression is the number one cause. It’s not a choice,” says Posner, who takes exception with the popular TV program “13 Reasons.”
“It says this is a rational choice,” she says of the program, which she links to an increase in youth suicides. She says the misunderstanding “can literally kill.”
How does one ask? Will the question plant a seed in a troubled mind?
“When people are suffering, they want to be asked,” says Posner.
Support from peers who recognize risks and can identify signs and symptoms is critical, says Dr. Keita Franklin, co-director of the Columbia Lighthouse Project.
Peer-to-peer support is the “largest factor in reducing suicide in schools,” says Franklin, making the pandemic especially challenging for children.
“Friends define their development,” she says, adding parents should make sure peers can connect online to support one another.
The ‘Just Ask’ approach “is more than an intervention,” Franklin says. “It’s a format for normalizing the difficult conversations.”
“Yes, we need to address academics,” said Clark County Superintendent Jesus Jara. ““If my kids aren’t well, how can we address academics?”
“There were days it was tough for me to come to work,” Jara said of the pandemic. “Imagine what our children are thinking when life has just changed.”
Mark Orr lost his son Andrew to suicide in August.
“I had no clue. We had no warning,” he said during Monday’s forum. “I didn’t teach him to say… I didn’t get the word across to him to be able to ask for help. It’s so icky and taboo, nobody knows how to talk about it.”
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