News Article Details

CSU, UAFS officials see prevalence of suicidal subjects

Times Record - 9/2/2018

Sept. 02--Suicide Prevention Month began on Saturday, but officials in the Fort Smith region recognize that the issue warrants year-round attention.

Amber Cervantes, lead therapist at the Five West Crisis Stabilization Unit, said the facility sees suicidal people on a near-constant basis. And while certain times of the year bring an influx of reports of suicidal students to University of Arkansas Fort Smith faculty, mental health is an issue throughout higher education, said David Stevens, UAFS dean of students.

"There are a lot of good men and women out here who need that help," Stevens said.

Sebastian County, the most populated county in the Fort Smith region, from 2012-16 averaged 16.3 suicides per 100,000 people. It was eclipsed by Crawford County, the second-most populated county in the region, which averaged 21.1 suicides per 100,000 people, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

These numbers don't take into account the greater number of people who consider taking their lives but don't follow through.

"A lot of people are not able to cope with stress, and that is a go-to response," Cervantes said.

Regional prevalence, national crisis

Suicide took nearly 45,000 lives in the United States in 2016. It was the 10th-leading cause of death in the U.S. that year, according to the National Institute for Mental Health.

Suicide rates across the U.S. from 1999 to 2016 increased in almost every state. Arkansas' suicide rate over that period of time increased between 19 percent and 30 percent in that time, and Oklahoma's increased between 31 percent and 37 percent, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

On the Oklahoma side of the Fort Smith region, LeFlore and Sequoyah counties averaged 20.7 and 21.9 suicides per 100,000 people. Among counties in the region with available data, Polk County had 22.2 suicides per 100,000 people, and Logan County 24.9 per 100,000 people -- the sixth-highest rate among Arkansas counties with available data, according to Health Statistics.

In its first three months of operation, CSU, which aims to divert the mentally ill in Sebastian, Crawford, Logan, Franklin, Scott and Polk counties from jail to treatment, admitted 89 suicidal people -- 83 percent of all of its admissions.

"We typically have somebody here who is suicidal, unfortunately," said Cervantes.

Why it happens

Though the reasons for suicide and suicidal ideations differ for each person, Cervantes and Stevens have seen certain factors in the Fort Smith region arise more often than others.

Cervantes said drugs and poverty are inextricably linked to suicides in the region. Sebastian and Crawford counties in 2017 an estimated 16.9 percent and 16.8 percent poverty rates, according to the Census Bureau, as well as some of the highest numbers for opioid prescriptions and abuse in Arkansas in the latest available years for data.

"It all kind of combines in, 'I am hopeless, I don't know what else to do, so I think I'll die,'" she said. "That's what we see."

On the flip side of narcotics, Stevens said suicidal ideations sometimes arise when people don't want to take anti-depressants or other prescribed substances for mental health disorders. He said he has seen this among the student population at UAFS.

Stevens also said suicidal thoughts among the student body are far more common at certain times of the school year.

"Those kinds of issues, especially with our students, happen during midterms, when a student starts to realize, 'Maybe my grades aren't where I wanted them to be.' We get a lot of them close to the holidays -- for a lot of students, the semester is winding down, and they have to go home. A lot of students have mixed relationships with family, so that, I think, can be a trigger at times," he said.

Cervantes said disorders like depression or anxiety can come into play, especially when something in life provokes people who have these disorders. An estimated 19.1 percent of adults in the United States in 2016 had an anxiety disorder, and 6.7 percent had a major depressive episode, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Cervantes also said suicides of popular public figures -- most recently of TV personality and chef Anthony Bourdain and fashion icon Kate Spade -- have brought it into public consciousness. She also said she saw an uptick in suicidal youth reporting to Valley Behavioral Health after the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, which retrospectively shows why a high school girl decided to commit suicide, aired in 2017.

"It gave children who aren't able to conceptualize it the idea that you can speak from the grave, and you really can't," she said. "When you're gone, you're gone, and people forget about you eventually."

Sharing pain

Though places like CSU, the UAFS counseling center and others in the Fort Smith region have employees who are equipped to address people with suicidal ideations, Cervantes and Stevens say there are steps others can take as well.

Cervantes said a first step someone can take to potentially prevent someone he or she knows from committing suicide is by asking about it. She said people who plan to commit suicide often will not talk about their thoughts.

"People want you to say, 'Hey, are you OK?' and address them straight-on," she said. "They don't want you to tiptoe around it, because they are going to be planning things and thinking, 'Man, nobody cares enough to just ask me.'"

Cervantes also said people who know someone who might be suicidal should reach out regardless of whether or not he or she understands that person's situation.

"People say, 'you can't help me,' or 'you can't fix my situation.' I can't fix your situation, but you'd be amazed if you just let me share your pain for a minute," she said.

"What I always tell students when they're interacting with a friend who is having suicidal thoughts is, the best thing he or she can do is let them know, 'I'm here for you, I care about you,' but also to understand he or she is not prepared or trained to help them at the level they need it," said Stevens.

In light of this dynamic, Cervantes and Stevens both said the Fort Smith region has a lack of mental health professionals who can adequately address people with suicidal ideations. Stevens said this is important, considering people often battle disorders for most of their lives.

"It's something that doesn't end when you walk across that stage, so we need good men and women to go to work in this field," he said.

In the meantime, Cervantes said people who struggle with suicidal ideations in the Fort Smith region need to look for help in the ways they can.

"Anyone who is struggling, reach out for help. Go walk into the nearest emergency room," she said.

"There's a stigma to it, but everybody needs help," Stevens said of suicidal thoughts. "I think if we could just accept that as being the truth, then maybe the stigma will go away, or start to go away.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255 and takes calls 24 hours a day, seven days a week. All calls are kept confidential.

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(c)2018 Times Record (Fort Smith, Ark.)

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