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Community forum sparks suicide discussion

A community forum on suicide prevention featured as much audience participation as panel discussion as attendees and experts shared views and advice on recognizing and helping vulnerable youth, adults and veterans.

The forum, “Let’s Talk … A Community Forum on Suicide and its Prevention,” on March 30 was sponsored by the St. Peters Health & Wellness Advisory Committee, a group of community volunteers that advises the city’s Board of Aldermen and city officials.

Members of a three-member panel that led the discussion said suicide attempts, particularly by young people, continue to rise. And suicide is a major issue for young veterans who are trying to re-enter civilian life.

Heather Davidson, director of youth services for SSM Behavioral Health Services, said about 30 young people between the ages of 15 to 24 die of suicide each year in the St. Louis area.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], there were 41,149 suicides in 2013 in the United States. About 1.3 million adults age 18 and older attempted suicide in 2015, with suicide the second leading cause of death among persons aged 13 to 34.

The CDC statistics are about two years behind, according to Davidson.

“They’re going up – we’re seeing much of that on the youth side, and also on the adult side,” Davidson said.

Molly Dwyer-Simonsen, team leader of outpatient behavioral health programs at SSM Behavioral Health Services, said that five years ago, suicide was the 10th leading cause of death.

“Now, it’s eighth,” Dwyer-Simonsen said. “That kind of puts things into perspective that it’s jumped up that much in less than five years. It was more prevalent than we’re aware of.”

Dwyer-Simonsen said genetics can play a role in some forms of depression as can drug and alcohol abuse. Having an experience with someone who committed suicide, the news media, and use of the Internet can increase risk factors.

“It makes it [suicide] more plausible and somehow more acceptable to actually think about that and go through with it,” she said.

Davidson said economic issues and cyber-bullying through the Internet also can create depression and anxiety. She said medical professionals also are seeing higher numbers of gay and lesbian young people.

Webb, who works with Marines and other veterans, said veterans organizations have actually seen a drop in suicides locally, largely because agencies and organizations are providing direct treatment and engaging veterans.

Often the issues behind suicide may not stem from combat in, say, Afghanistan, but arise when veterans come home.

“When he or she comes home, they’ve lost purpose,” Webb said. Because of changes at home while they are in the military they feel they often don’t fit in anymore, he said.

Among the prevention tips offered, the experts suggested being alert to changes in behavior and appearance. For example, if someone starts to sees a veteran with all their “stuff folded and neat you need to start worrying,” Webb said.

“We need to start to observe,” Dwyer-Simonsen said. “When we notice something, we need to get connected and care about one another and be okay with being a little obtrusive,” she said.

While panelists emphasized the need for open and direct communication, they also said parents and families also have to set limits and expectations for their children to abide by.

Attendees and panelists agreed that the “stigma” of suicide needs to be overcome with people being more willing to talk about it openly. Dwyer-Simonsen said attendees can become advocates for suicide prevention, particularly by asking lawmakers who control budgets to provide funding for programs to help.

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