CHARLESTON (AP) — At least one West Virginia student has killed herself since the school year began, authorities say, and state officials are stepping up suicide prevention efforts.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin marked World Suicide Prevention Day on Monday, and proclaimed Sept. 9-15 as Suicide Prevention Week at the state Capitol. He then traveled to Hedgesville High School in the Eastern Panhandle to talk to students there about this crisis.
The Aug. 30 death of Harrison County high school junior Ashley McIntyre lends a fresh sense of urgency to the message. Her mother Leora McIntyre told WBOY that Ashley hung herself in the family’s barn.
McIntyre was 16. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among West Virginians ages 15-24, and the third-leading cause of death for that age group nationwide.
“We sure are trying to make a dent in that, believe me,” said Bob Musick, executive director of the West Virginia Council for the Prevention of Suicide.
Musick plans to accompany the governor as part of his group’s effort to help family and friends recognize the warning signs, and appeal to those thinking of suicide that death is not the answer.
“There is hope, there is help out there,” said Musick, a behavioral health professional for more than 40 years. “People get so depressed, they don’t feel like calling a help line or walking into an emergency room or a behavioral health center.”
Drug addiction also plays a major role, Musick said. This part of the crisis hits home for Musick: his son left a suicide note while struggling with drugs in his late teens. The young man wrote that he couldn’t beat his addiction, and that his family would be better off without him, Musick recalled.
“I had just finished a workshop on suicide prevention,” Musick said on when he found the note.
But Musick’s son did not kill himself. Now 28, he’s been clean from drugs for four years, in school and planning to get married, Musick said.
Figures compiled by Musick’s group count 2,807 suicides among West Virginians between 2000 and 2009. Pocahontas, Clay, Tyler and Mercer counties have the highest rates when measured as a proportion of their overall populations. Of those suicides, 320 were committed by 15-24 year-olds.
The newly enacted Jason Flatt Act aims to help West Virginia educators prevent suicides. Named after a Tennessee 16-year-old who killed himself in 1997, it calls for training teachers, principals and others to recognize the warning signs and reach out to students in crisis. At least seven states have passed such legislation. Tomblin signed West Virginia’s version into law in March.
The resulting requests from educators have overwhelmed Barri Faucett and her staff at the Adolescent Suicide Prevention and Early Intervention Project, also known as ASPEN, which provides the training.
“There are three of us, and we’ve had phone call after phone call,” said Faucett, ASPEN’s project director. “In a way, that’s a good thing, because it shows that schools are taking this seriously.”
One in 10 West Virginia students report seriously considering suicide and go so far as to make a plan for killing themselves, Faucett said. She and her team recently trained more than 800 people Greenbrier County in suicide intervention and prevention, she said. Faucett also noted that educators were connecting with at-risk students before the Jason Flatt law. She said more than 400 students in Kanawha County received suicide prevention services during the previous decade.
“Had those teachers, had that staff not been trained, we don’t know how many of those children would have been referred,” Faucett said.
Tomblin also plans to speak out against bullying during Monday’s events. Nearly one-fifth of West Virginia students have reported being bullied, with a slightly higher rate for girls, Faucett said.
Officials cite research shows that bullies and their victims are at a higher risk for suicide. McIntyre’s family members thought bullying may have played a part in her death. Harrison County Sheriff Albert Marano told The Exponent Telegram newspaper that while all indications point to suicide, investigators have found no evidence of bullying.
Bullying is not always a factor in youth suicide, Faucett said.
“Just because a kid is bullied does not mean they will commit suicide,” Faucett said. “But in general, kids who are bullied have underlying depression, mental health or substance abuse issues. They have the associated risk factors.”
Seeking to dispel myths about suicide, Faucett said talking about it does not put the idea in a troubled student’s head and nor does it make them angry. Amid efforts to combat this crisis, West Virginia has dropped in national rankings among other states for suicide rates, Faucett said.
“We don’t want to continue to have to hear family stories about them wishing they had known or seen the signs,” Faucett said. “I tell them, you don’t know what you don’t know … People who die by suicide generally don’t want to die, they just don’t know what else to do.”
West Virginia Council for the Prevention of Suicide: http://www.wvsuicidecouncil.org
Adolescent Suicide Prevention and Early Intervention Project (ASPEN): http://wvaspen.com
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)