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Salina Journal - 8/30/2017

There were 455 reported suicide deaths in the state in 2014, which is higher than the national average. The suicide rate in Kansas was 15.7 per 100,000 population that year, 24.6 percent higher than the national rate of 12.6 suicides per 100,000.

In fact, suicide is the second-leading cause of death for Kansans between the ages of 15 and 24, behind unintentional injuries.

In Salina, counselors who man a mobile suicide unit operated by Central Kansas Mental Health Center are called out daily, many times up to twice a day.

"There's definitely a need for mobile crisis services," said Dan Gard, director of outpatient services with the mental health center.

The unit is made up of trained professionals who are on call to counsel people who threaten or attempt suicide.

Occurs everywhere

Suicide is nondiscriminatory, said Monica Kurz, director of the Kansas Suicide Prevention Resource Center.

"We know being in a higher social-economic status does not put you at less risk for suicide," she said. "It doesn't discriminate across race or social-economic lines. Each situation is very unique."

Kurz said when someone well-known, whether just a friend or a celebrity, commits suicide it often draws more attention, but it doesn't cause suicide or put more people at risk.

"The network as a whole received a pretty big increase when Robin Williams died," she said. "Talking about suicide doesn't put people at a greater risk. But we want to be careful how we talk about suicide."

Why more suicides?

So why is the suicide rate in Kansas higher than the national average?

"I don't think anyone knows for sure," said Cody Sparks, director of crisis services at the mental health center. "I would suspect several things. The rural areas tend to have less access to services. I think in rural areas, too, there is more of a stigma related to having mental health issues, so fewer people will seek out treatment. They tend to have the, 'I'll handle this myself,' mentality. Then it becomes overwhelming."

"That is the $64,000 question," Gard said. "The five counties, and even Saline County, we are ahead of the national average on elderly people. The farther out into the sticks you get, the farther you have to drive to get any kind of mental health and the less likely you are to do that."

Gard said a lot of military personnel retire in rural Kansas.

"People that have had issues with military-related stuff tend to have a higher suicide rate. Those in the military feel like they have done their duty but struggle with accessing mental health treatment," Sparks said.

"What we are more aware of now is that military people that have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, some of whom turn out to be suicidal, many are able to manage to keep that all at a distance and then they retire," Gard said. "For some of them when they retire and they don't have that career, those symptoms, those nightmares of where time experiences sometimes come back on them. That's a point where they have more mental health difficulties.

"When a person just feels hopeless, that there isn't going to be any solution to their problem, those are the ones that are suicidal," Gard said.

Could be higher

That rate could even be higher, as some suicides are not reported.

"What's the point in causing the family extra concern when they were 90-plus (in age) anyway," Gard said. "It's hard to know when people with this terrible addiction become hopeless and think there are no ways out."

Sparks said "cocooning," sometimes called social isolation, can lead to suicidal thoughts.

"There are a group of people that feel like they don't fit in, that they don't connect. The more disconnected, the more isolated you feel; I'm not heard, nobody likes me, nobody cares about me," he said.

There is also a higher rate of suicide among the LGBTQ community.

Social media effect

Social media can be both helpful and harmful, Sparks said.

"It can increase your connection, but it is real superficial in my view. It can be hurtful because you have cyber-bullying," he said. "We also have a lot of teenagers here and that is a very concerning group."

Gard said teenage use of social media is relatively new. He said it can cause "compare and despair."

"We don't have young people's use of social media figured out," he said. "There is a whole new territory that we haven't had a chance to explore. Early on we can see there is more isolation going on among young people, less connectednes. There is the interesting question, is depression something that happens as a result of their intense involvement in social media, this 'compare and despair' phenomenon we are hearing about? How much more depression are we going to see in this new era?"

Sparks said photos of models, entertainers and athletes contribute to the 'compare and despair' phenomenon.

"All of those pictures are retouched. Almost 100 percent. Nobody can live up to the standard. It used to be just at the checkout stand at the grocery store; now it's in your face everywhere. People are seeing all these great and wonderful things people do, so why can't I do that," he said.

"Your perception is that everyone is doing something and you are not included," Gard said. "Some young people have serious mood issues related to them sizing themselves up on social media comparing to what their friends are doing.

Help available

When someone talks about suicide they should get help, Gard said.

"We hope that when someone makes a suicidal statement, it is taken really seriously and they get them in to see a professional person," he said. "There is a concern that some people are just saying that just for attention and didn't take it seriously, and there was a missed opportunity for a professional person to help them sort that through."

Kurz said often the first sign that a person is suicidal is a change in actions.

"Someone talking quite a bit about death, reading about death, writing about death. That is something we want to check in on," she said.

Help is available. There's a national hotline, 1-800-273-TALK. Also, the Central Kansas Chapter of The Compassionate Friends, which offers counseling to people with suicidal thoughts, is located at 2401 S. Ohio.


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