Once upon a time, not long ago, suicide was treated like a dirty word: something not to be mentioned in polite society, certainly not around children.
That attitude has started to change in recent years, as experts have recognized that friends and family members, healthcare providers, nursing-home operators, school staff, and others need to know the signs of suicidal thoughts to help save lives.
To continue this trend, New Jersey officials will host a day-long conference on Tuesday, titled “Take a minute, change a life,” at which nearly 300 stakeholders — including suicide survivors — are slated to discuss efforts to better understand and reduce these deaths. (While the event is open to the public, registration has closed.)
The conference, which coincides with National Suicide Prevention Week, will also introduce the “Zero Suicide” approach, a national campaign developed in 2012 that considers every suicide by someone in the healthcare system to be preventable, and seeks to improve diagnoses and communication to eliminate these losses.
Stressing suicide-risk assessment
New Jersey has also chosen to adapt the approach, according to a spokesperson for the Department of Human Services, which is leading the event along with the Department of Children and Family Services. That means suicide-risk assessment and prevention will become a core component of healthcare training, education, and services going forward.
But the conference — now in its second year — and the new approach are only one aspect of New Jersey’s multifaceted approach to addressing suicide, which resulted in the premature death of 789 state residents in 2015, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The DHS’s “Division of Mental Health Services, under Gov. (Chris) Christie’s leadership, has made suicide prevention one of its top priorities, using a multifaceted and multi-departmental approach aimed at saving people’s lives,” spokesperson Ellen Lovejoy said.
Teaming with Rutgers
The DHS works with Rutgers University to operate several emergency hotlines and other behavioral health programs designed to reduce suicide. Each county operates a crisis intervention team; colleges must have behavioral health experts available; and schools are now required to train staff to detect warning signs. (The New Jersey Hopeline — 1-855-NJ-HOPELINE, or 654-6735, provides peer support and suicide prevention help 24/7.)
There are also nonprofit organizations and established volunteer groups that work directly with schools, camps, and youth groups to help reduce stigma and connect kids with help before they attempt to take their own lives.
Low suicide rate
New Jersey’s suicide rate of 8.3 per 100,000 deaths is among the lowest nationwide and lags far behind the national average of 13 per 100,000, according to the CDC, but both rates have crept up over the past decade. The rates vary significantly by race and sex; white residents are more likely to kill themselves than black citizens and nearly three out of four suicides involve men, although women attempt the act far more frequently.
Regional differences also exist, according to the most recent report from the DCF, which focused on suicide among people ages 10 to 24 years old. Statewide, the suicide rate for this group was around 5.3 per 100,000 deaths, but the report found youngsters in the northwest corner of the state were far more likely to kill themselves (7.5), with shore counties second (6.1), followed by those near the Delaware River (5.1) and the northeast (4.3). However, suicide remains the third leading cause of death among this age group in New Jersey.
“It’s really about building awareness. Any suicide is too many,” said Kurt Baker, who founded Attitudes In Reverse with his wife Tricia after their son Kenny took his life in 2009. Volunteers with the organization have dedicated themselves to meeting and talking with kids and caregivers to help them identify those in need and connect them with services. The group now has chapters in other states and given tens of thousands of presentations to schools, scout troops, camps, and other entities.
‘From ill to thriving’
“There are a lot of programs out there (to help children and families in crisis.) Sometimes it’s hard to find the right fit, but there are a lot out there,” Baker added. “When I’m able to connect people with the right program we hear good things. Their kids go from ill to thriving.”
The group also works with New Jersey colleges to help them comply with the Madison Holleran Suicide Prevention Act, a law signed by Christie in 2016 and named after an Allendale native who took her life in January 2014, during her freshman year at the University of Pennsylvania. The measure requires Garden State higher education facilities to have trained mental health experts available to students 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Primary schools are also doing more to address mental health issues, including bullying and other stressors that can be triggers for suicide. The Bridge Inc., a nonprofit established to help teens in parts of Essex County nearly five decades ago, has received funding from the Partners in Health Foundation and the U.S. Department of Education to create a counseling program in the Caldwell-West Caldwell School District that seeks to prevent self-harm and substance abuse.
The Peace Model Project provides a team of mental health professionals available to assist students, educators, and parents in an effort to keep kids healthy and help them flourish in school and, according to Lou Schwarcz, CEO of the The Bridge, it has become a model of how community-based agencies can work with schools. Through the project, “we are teaching skills that will help children to achieve their aspirations and prevent future life problems, such as self-harm, harm to others, and substance abuse,” Schwarcz said.
The growing awareness of suicide risk factors — and the need to talk about them — has meant more work for public officials, nonprofit organizations, and volunteers throughout the system. But that is good news to many, like the Bakers with Attitudes in Reverse. Tricia Baker said the group once gave about 5,000 presentations annually, but that jumped at least four-fold over the past year. “I have been so busy this past year,” she said. “’Zero Suicide’ is not our campaign, but it is our goal.”