Suicide Coverage: Prevention or Promotion?

Every 14.2 minutes someone in the United States dies by suicide.

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention website, men are four times more likely to die by suicide, even though women are more likely to attempt suicide. Marian Binder, the director of Counseling and Psych Services at The University of Arizona, said that this is because men are more likely to follow through with their attempts. Reported suicide rates are the highest between the ages of 40 and 59 years old, but that age demographic could be shifting to a younger age group.

Binder said that there has been a recent spike in the media attention around suicide, and it could be causing more harm than good for youth, especially those who are bullied.

Binder said that there are stronger outreach programs and services for students who identify with the gay and lesbian community since it is considered “at risk” because of the bullying that has come from sexual orientation.

“There has been a lot of visible press about it and it has become a more acceptable option for young people. Students tend to jump to that place and consider suicide more frequently because they see it on the news all the time,” Binder said. “It worries people in my field that this could lead to ‘copycat syndrome’ where students see their friends committing suicide and it seems like a normal thing.”

Recognizing that someone may be at risk of suicide can come in many different ways, Binder said. Any radical change in behavior could be a warning flag, and sleep and appetite changes could also indicate a change in a person’s mental health.

“Mental health problems become progressive, which is why we emphasize early detection, and ask people to seek help even if they think their situation isn’t bad enough to warrant it,” Binder said. “People think that they need to be in bad shape to get counseling, but that is a misconception. The earlier the treatment, the better.”

Nikki Kontz, the board president for the Arizona Suicide Prevention Coalition, said that the stigma around mental health is decreasing and our society is becoming more willing to talk about suicide and how to prevent it.

“With adolescence, there is so much going on hormonally, as well as natural stress and societal pressure. A lot of these stresses have changed with the onset of social media and the idea that these kids have to be constantly connected to those around them,” Kontz said. “They are just beginning to learn independence and coping skills, which can be a scary thing.”

Kontz said that there hasn’t been an increase in the amount of youth who are committing suicide; rather there is an increase of media attention around it, which has its positive and negative effects.

“The good news is that people are now talking about it and realizing that it is a serious issue that needs to be addressed. The bad news is that teenagers are still children, so they focus on what is being modeled for them. If they can see themselves in these stories of kids committing suicide because of bullying, then they tend to think that maybe this should be their solution too,” Kontz said.

According to Kontz, what makes the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community at risk is not sexuality, but the world’s reaction to sexuality. For many, suicide is never even considered because they are surrounded by people who love and support them. What usually causes LGBT youth to consider suicide is rooted in a sense of hopelessness and rejection from friends and family who do not accept them because they are different, Kontz said.

“We are worried that this media push around youth suicide is creating a contagion effect. We’re afraid that it is going to normalize it,” Kontz said. “While awareness of the issue is necessary, we need to be emphasizing prevention rather than the act of suicide.”

Along with sexual orientation, Binder said that many students come into her office because of heightened stress and anxiety, much of which is attributed to the competitive nature of school and rising living costs. She said that time has not necessarily changed the issues that students seek help for, but the intensity levels are increasing as the age levels decrease. There also appears to be a worsening of long-term suffering, which means that people are not seeking help when in need.

“We have always seen students who are facing depression or anxiety, but it seems like the severity levels have increased,” Binder said. “The economy has forced more students to work and the job market is encouraging students to try and finish their schooling faster, which means more units and more pressure. The academic standards have gone up.”

Depression is the most widely known diagnoses, and that can include mood-related issues like bi-polar disorder, where individuals swing back and forth between hyper mood changes. Binder said that many of these conditions begin to surface when individuals are between the ages of 20 and 30 because that is when most people first experience true independence.

In recent years, Binder said she has seen an increase in technological addictions, with students spending as much as 10 hours a day online gaming or succumbing to pornography addictions, things that weren’t seen or even possible 20 years ago. This need to spend their time connected to their electronic devices makes it very difficult for students to get work done, Binder said.

“There is a greater impact on daily life,” Kontz said. “When kids were having trouble a decade ago, they went home to get a break. Now, the stimulus is constantly around them.”

When students go into Counseling and Psych Services, their treatment begins with a screening interview or brief therapy session to determine if counseling and/or medication are the best routes for them. After the initial visit, if the student is referred to ongoing counseling, that can take place in a couple of different ways. They can either make visits to see their counselor, or if it is a severe or at-risk situation, the student could be placed into hospital care and monitored until their fears or anxieties are remedied.

Binder said that there are outreach programs to help students, family and friends recognize when an individual may be struggling with mental health issues, but most of this education is implemented in school systems. There are treatment centers throughout Arizona, and there are regional behavioral health entities in every county.

Kontz is also a licensed social worker for Teen Lifeline, a crisis hotline for Arizona youth that emphasizes peer counseling for troubled adolescents. Kontz said that her department trains teenagers to take calls, which are always done with the supervision of a clinical professional.

“Teenagers prefer talking to other teenagers over adults. They want to talk to someone roughly their own age who may understand them and be going through the same experiences,” Kontz said. “We try to listen and empower them to make healthy decisions. Our goal isn’t to fix the problem, but instead to give them the skills to manage their own stress and emotional stability.”

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