How can New Jersey prevent youth suicides?

Wendy Sefcik lost her 16-year-old son TJ to suicide. She stood Thursday in solidarity with other New Jersey families impacted by suicide at a state-sponsored forum seeking ways to prevent people — particularly kids — from taking their own lives. Wendy says her son, like many teens, hid his deep depression.

“And very often these people feel compelled to mask, to hide, behind a smile because they don’t want to disappoint anybody. They don’t think anyone will understand. They’re afraid of the stigma and what the repercussions will be by speaking out,” she said.

New Jersey’s overall youth suicide rate is about half the national average, but it shows a disturbing trend. While rates for older youths aged 19 to 24 declined from 2012 to 2015, the rate rose for younger kids, aged 10 to 18. State officials say those numbers could be low.

“We believe there’s an underreporting of youth suicide by medical examiners because they don’t want to indicate suicide as the manner of death — many times indicating or believing that the youth, the person, was too young to know the finality of their action,” said Christie Norbut Beyer, commissioner of the Department of Children and Families.

One response: lawmakers Thursday introduced a bill that would mandate a five-minute screening by school health aides of students in grades seven through twelve for depression. The screening consists of two questions.

“Which basically ask you how you’re feeling, how your mood is, and whether you’re feeling sad, basically, over a period of time. And if you answer those questions positively, you’re at risk of having depression, and the idea is that you go on for a fuller battery of questions and evaluation by a health care professional,” said Assemblyman Herb Conaway, who’s sponsoring the Assembly bill.

The bill lets parents opt out. New Jersey’s Health Commissioner Shereef Elnahal took no position on the legislation, but said questions — even to kids — need to be direct.

“Literally saying, ‘Have you thought about hurting yourself? Have you thought about killing yourself? Have you thought about hurting others?’ These are questions that are difficult to ask, but if you don’t and you ask it in a roundabout way, you’re going to miss people,” said Elnahal.

While the nation’s overall suicide rate has increased, New Jersey’s dropped 14 percent in 2016 when almost 700 New Jerseyans took their own lives. Health officials also noted that doctors are missing the warning signs during regular checkups.

“Forty-five percent of people who die by suicide have seen their primary care physician within a month of that event. Clearly, a missed opportunity,” Elnahal said.

“It turns out, we have a very powerful technology for predicting who needs help — asking,” said Case Western Reserve University psychiatry professor Michael Hogan.

When Nicole Boyce lost her husband, Justin, to suicide, she says he slipped through the cracks.

“I’m hearing a lot about missed opportunities and I feel like there was a lot of missed opportunities when it came to him,” Boyce said.

Families who’ve lost a loved one to suicide support better screening and diagnosis. Their major concern is will there be resources to treat people — kids and adults — over the long road to recovery?