Breaking the silence

(Courtesy of Andrew Dorn/OPB)

Suicide is a complicated word. It jumbles around in your mouth, it leaves people with questions and awkward silences. Saying that you’ve lost someone to suicide or that you’ve attempted suicide can cause people to treat you differently, even if they don’t intend to.

More often than not, the issue goes unspoken — struggled with silently, an elephant in the room that people don’t quite know how to deal with.

For the past three decades, Oregon has had a 33.3 percent higher suicide rate than the national average, according to data from Oregon Health Authority. Along with this, the age is averaged at 17.8. Between the ages of 15 to 34, suicide is the second leading cause of death for Oregon residents, and Lane County accounts for 1/10 of those deaths on an annual basis.

From the years 2000 to 2016, 1,079 people died by suicide in Lane County, according to data from Prevention Lane, a local program serving the Lane County community to prevent drug abuse, suicide and improve overall community health.

News organizations have conventionally avoided reporting suicide for fear of causing a “contagion effect” — that if they write about suicide, it will be imitated by the organization’s readers and viewers. But many Oregon publications have been participating in Breaking the Silence: Shining a Light on Oregon’s Suicide Crisis,” which aims to break the stigma of suicide and offer solutions to the crisis.

According to Chief Program Officer Tia Barnes from Youth ERA, a local non-profit that serves youth in Oregon who experience depression, suicidal thoughts or trauma, they hire young adults with similar life experiences who can provide help to the youth in the program.  

“A huge value of Youth ERA’s is to reduce stigma, because there’s just a lot of stigma in general around accessing support or talking about mental health, let alone suicide,” Barnes said. “So a lot of our work is normalizing that with peer support, and it’s our staff saying ‘I’ve been there too and this is what that looks like, and that is okay.’”

There’s no definitive research to say why people die by suicide, but Roger Brubaker, Prevention Lane’s suicide prevention coordinator, said that it could be multiple factors — the biggest being Oregon’s mental health crisis.

“Oregon as a whole is ranked as having one of the highest prevalences for mental illness in the country,” Brubaker said.

Along with those factors, there are particular demographics that play into the average. Both white and Native American populations have higher suicide rates. Lane County is also an older community and has a larger proportion of veterans than other places in Oregon, which Brubraker says adds to the higher numbers.

According to Brubaker, Lane County has 50 percent higher suicide rates than the national average for its population size.

“We have a real problem here in Lane County,” Brubaker said. “We have more people dying than would be expected based on those national rates.”

Overall, men are more susceptible to suicide. In Lane County alone, 77 percent of the 1,079 people who died by suicide were male, which fits the national pattern for both adults and male youth, Brubaker said.

“Gender distribution holds true across the board,” Brubaker said. “Boys are much more likely to die than girls in every age group that we look at.”  

At the University of Oregon, the Counseling Center has the Student Suicide Prevention Team, a student group that works to provide suicide prevention and promote mental health through peer-to-peer presentations. According to Suicide Prevention Team Coordinator Suzie Stadelman, college students are part of the age group in which suicide is the second leading cause of death.

“They really focus on raising awareness about suicide, trying to destigmatize talking about suicide and talking about mental health concerns in general,” Stadelman said. “Students definitely seem very interested in the topic.”

The group presents around three to five times a term to various student organizations and emphasizes how to help their peers and talk frankly about suicide and mental health, Stadelman said.

“I think many college students struggle with mental health,” Stadelman said. “Nationally, colleges are seeing every year, more and more demand for mental health services.”

According to Brubaker, suicide is a serious public health issue that needs to be talked about — no matter how uncomfortable it may be. Brubaker says research has demonstrated that having safe conversations about suicide doesn’t promote suicidal thoughts or behavior, as long as those conversations are done in a non-judgemental and safe manner.

“People need a basic level of awareness and education so that they can have safe conversations about it,” Brubaker said. “We should be talking about this like we would any other health condition. If we are able in whatever position it may be — a reporter, or a therapist, or a public health practitioner to be able to open this conversation up, we can save lives.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with suicide, please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, open 24/7, at 1-800-273-8255. Here are also some other resources.

News Reporter

Erin Carey is a news reporter for the Daily Emerald. She enjoys coffee, hockey and the Oregon Zoo. You can reach her at [email protected]


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