Teen suicide: Rural community youths not immune to contributing factors

Published 12:01 pm Tuesday, February 7, 2023

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Editor’s note: This article discusses suicide. If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, don’t hesitate to contact the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 or 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports almost one person dies in the United States every 11 minutes by taking their own life. Among young people, 17 suicide deaths occur across the nation every day.

In 2020, suicide was the second leading cause of death for people ages 10-14 and 25-34. While the data represents youth suicides nationwide, children in rural communities such as Butler, Lowndes, and Crenshaw counties are at risk of the same factors impacting children nationwide today.

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Karen Sullins, licensed professional counselor and owner of Helping Hands Professional Counseling and Consulting, works with youth and children in Butler, Crenshaw, and Lowndes Counties. Last year alone, at least a dozen youth in those counties said they had considered suicide.

“In 2022, at least a dozen youths [said they considered suicide],” Sullins said. “And that’s just the ones who were brave enough to tell me.”

According to the CDC, suicide attempts and deaths among children have increased over the past decade. National Alliance on Mental Illness data indicates nearly 20% of high school students have entertained serious thoughts of suicide and 9% report a suicide attempt.

Lowndes County Schools Superintendent Jason Burroughs has witnessed this increase among students in his school system. 

“We hear more and more children saying that they want to commit suicide these days,” Burroughs said. “It’s something in past generations a lot of people didn’t even consider.”

The National Institute of Mental Health (NAMI) identified mental health concerns as contributors toward suicide deaths, with the most common being attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or depression.

Trauma, including suspected or confirmed cases of abuse, neglect, and domestic violence, family-related problems such as divorce, custody disputes, parental substance use, and school problems such as expulsion, suspension, and changing schools are also reported factors contributing to suicide deaths.

Butler County Schools Federal Program Director Lisa Adair said youth face a multitude of stressors that may lead them to consider suicide, including some previous generations never encountered.

“Factors can be multifaceted,” Adair said. “Some dynamics of modern society complicate an already confusing time of adolescence. There’s anonymity behind social media, which kids can hide behind when being cruel to another child. Bullying can happen in a way that’s not visible and often it’s after the fact that the adults find out about it.”

Crenshaw County Schools employ a universal screening system to examine social and emotional learning concerns and identify at-risk students. According to Crenshaw County Schools Special Education Director Sherry Sport, at-risk students don’t always display visible warning signs.

“Children or adults who are struggling with anxiety or depression or just feelings of low self-worth often wear a mask,” Sport said. “That mask is sometimes so encompassing that no one knows what’s really going on underneath.”

NAMI reports risks of suicide vary across different identity and cultural groups, with historically disadvantaged communities who experience discrimination, social/environmental stressors, and limited access to care and support resources also experiencing higher rates of suicide.

But Adair notes mental health challenges are no respecters of persons.

“Depression has no prejudice,” Adair said. “It doesn’t choose a class. It doesn’t choose a race or an age group. Some children are happy, have friends, and achieve in school or athletics but can still be struggling. We have to be very careful not to assume that there’s a specific type that would try to commit suicide or that would be depressed.”

Life-challenging events can trigger youths to consider suicide, Sullins explained.

“Triggers create a moment where there’s a break from reality,” Sullins said. “And then, suicide can seem like the only option. Expectations have an impact as well, not so much things that other people expect, but expectations young people place on themselves. When they feel they can’t live up to expectations, it can be tragic.”

No group of teens is immune, Sullins added. The pressures facing teens reach into every circle — at home, school, and even church.

“It’s a real pressure, for [kids] to feel like they are worthless, invaluable, or a complete failure, for them to say, ‘I’d rather do this than disappoint the people I love.’”

For more information, visit nami.org or cdc.gov/suicide.

Editor’s note: This report is the first of a three-part series of articles highlighting teen suicide. Part 1 outlines leading contributing factors among youth who consider or attempt suicide. Check out the Feb. 15 edition of The Greenville Advocate for Part 2, which will cover what communities and individuals can do to help teens grappling with thoughts of suicide.