Suicide remains the second leading cause of death for the 15-24 age group. Suicide also remains the second leading cause of death for the 25-44 age group. Suicide has fallen to the fourth leading cause of death for the 5-14 age group. It remains the fifth leading cause of death for the 45-64 age group.
— from 2014 Kansas Annual
Summary of Vital Statistics
Editor’s note: This is the first of eight articles looking at suicide in Kansas.
By Gail Parsons
A stone thrown into the middle of a pond causes a ripple effect above and below the water’s surface — just as a suicide causes a ripple throughout a town, the effects of which may not be immediately visible.
“On the broader lever, the macro level, the community impact of a suicide is pretty negative,” said Andy Brown, executive director of Headquarters Counseling Center. “When we lose a friend or loved one to suicide, it impacts our own mental and emotional well-being and can cause a ripple effect through a community.”
Myth and fact
The potential effects are easier to combat if some of the myths surrounding suicide are dispelled. The number one myth, Brown said, is the person who dies by suicide was selfish. When the actions of one person cause grieving and enormous pain for another, it is common for people to say the action was selfish.
However, Brown wants people to think about what the person was going through when he or she made the decision. The person believed no one would miss them, and the people around them would be better off without them.
“People feel like suicidal behavior is selfish behavior when in reality most people who are feeling suicidal are feeling that way because they feel they are a burden on others,” he said. “They are viewing their suicidal act as a selfless thing or a more noble thing.”
Another common myth, which Brown feels is important to clear up, is if someone is talking about suicide it means they are not serious.
“The reality is everybody should take everyone seriously when they are talking about suicide,” he said.
Brown’s sentiment is shared by Abilene High School principal Ben Smith, who takes it one step further and said talk and unsuccessful attempts need to be taken serious.
“It’s the proverbial cry for help — what we are encouraged to do is believe every attempt is a valid attempt,” he said. “We don’t want to sit here and say, ‘25 percent are really just calls for help.’ You might have had 50 percent where people believed that, and carried out the act, and were successful.”
Suicide in Kansas
Kansas loses 500 to 550 people a year to suicide. The rate per 100,000 people is higher than the national average; Brown said the state is not the highest.
“We’re usually in the top 20, and what that essentially means is we have a lot of conditions that make it likely we will have a higher rate of suicide deaths,” he said.
Although people tend to hear more about youth suicide, the number of youth suicides in Kansas is relatively low in comparison to the adults.
“The younger kids you hear about. It makes better news stories, but the reality is we lose about a school bus and a half of kids a year, that’s about 60 to 90 kids. Out of our total of 500 to 550, less than 100 are kids,” he said.
He attributes the number to Kansas being a state with many rural and frontier communities where prevention work is limited because of the span of territory.
“Oftentimes states that have lower suicide rates are smaller states where prevention work can be more concentrated,” he said.
Another contributing factor is the aging population of Kansas. The 45 to 54 age group had the highest age-specific suicide rate during the 2004-2013 period. According to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy Older adults make up 12 percent of the U.S. population, but account for 18 percent of all suicide deaths.
Brown said research shows several reasons suicidal thoughts increase as people get older.
“A lot of the things that cause someone to feel suicidal take time to build up. The risk factors are things that could have started in childhood,” he said. “If you have incidents that happen along your lifespan that have a negative impact, all of those things culminate at a later age.”
As people age they may begin to get a sense of being a burden on their family, and they may begin to believe they no longer have anything worthwhile to contribute to society the way they did in their younger years.
“Combined that with a sense of low belonging or isolation where you don’t fit in, you’re not part of stuff, or you don’t have the social contacts. That can lead to someone feeling suicidal,” he said.
Another factor is when people reach their later years they tend to have more things pop up like divorces, health issues and financial trouble. They may have more trouble maintaining a sense of purpose in life.
Regardless of what a person is going through, or how bleak the future looks, Brown wants people to understand there is hope.
“We can successfully talk to people who are feeling suicidal and keep them alive; and they can go on to have good lives and aren’t always going to feel suicidal,” he said.
Help is available.
The suicide hotline in Kansas is operated by the Headquarters Counseling Center. They are there to take phone calls 24/7 from people who have any concerns about suicide, whether the concern is for himself, herself or someone else.
“They can reach out and talk to us about anything that is bothering them,” Brown said. “You don’t have to be suicidal to call us. It is also perfectly okay to call the line if you need help talking to a friend or are worried about a loved one. Those are perfectly good reasons to call the lifeline, too.”
The Suicide Hotline number is (800) 273-8255. If you live in Kansas but your phone has an out-of-state area code, call the center directly at (785) 841-2345.
For more information, visit http://www.kansassuicideprevention.org on line.