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Reducing stigma surrounding suicide, teen mental health

Source: Minnesota Student Survey Attached interactive graphic highlights results from 9th grade survey in Washington County schools.

When Joe Carlini was a sophomore in high school, a close friend and a very special girl took her own life.

A year later, another student died of suicide and in 2006, a classmate of Carlini's also died the same way.

"It was hard for me to accept someone would go that route and I think sometimes you feel like you're partially to blame," the 2006 Woodbury High School graduate said. "You feel like you could've talked them out of it."

The unfortunate incidents continued years after he graduated high school.

Teen suicides that took place in Woodbury, Cottage Grove and Stillwater within a short period of time in 2010 are still fresh on the minds of many.

"I remember the kids being in absolute shock," Michael Huntley said. "When a young person dies by any cause, it's very startling and shocking to teenagers. Teenagers see themselves or view themselves as kind of invincible and not vulnerable in any way."

Huntley, Youth Service Bureau coordinator, was part of the crisis response team in the spring of 2010 when two Woodbury High School students took their own lives, just a few weeks apart.

"It left many, many kids and parents confused, shocked, and freighted and wanting to know more," Huntley said.

Local mental health professionals said they felt compelled to do something and get the community together to talk about the topic, decrease the stigma and understand teen depression.

That's where the Suicide Prevention Collaborative of the East Metro came into play.

"It's OK to talk about it," said Renee Penticoff, psychologist and founder of the nonprofit. "It's OK to say the word 'suicide.'"

The Suicide Prevention Collaborative, an organization made up of a group of professionals and community volunteers dedicated to preventing teen suicide, held the first community meeting in 2011, with attendance that overflowed an auditorium and kicked off a number of other events and fundraisers that continued to draw attention to the topic over the past couple of years.

Community members are invited to the third annual "Optimizing Mental Health for All Our Youth" community gathering, which will be held Thursday, April 4, at WHS.

'Not out of the blue'

Suicide is the second leading cause of death for 15- to 34-year-olds in Minnesota; the third for 10- to 14-year-olds; and the fourth leading cause of death for 35- to 54-year-olds, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

About 500 deaths per year are caused by suicide - approximately three times the number of Minnesotans dying from homicide, the health department data states.

But not all data is as startling.

Recent data shows that suicidal thoughts and attempts among teens and pre-teens in Washington County have been steadily decreasing over the past decade.

A question on the Minnesota Student Survey, which students in sixth, ninth and 12th grade take every three years, asks about suicidal ideation among other issues including teen health, sexual behavior and drug and alcohol use.

In 2004, 31 percent of ninth grade girls in Washington County said they had thought about killing themselves during the last year.

Three years later, 14 percent of the same group of girls, then in 12th grade, answered yes to the same question.

But Huntley said although the surveys are administered in the schools anonymously, parents may simply opt their teens out of taking them. Other students refuse to provide accurate answers for fear that parents or other adults can track the results.

"I view the numbers as being actually pretty conservative," he said.

In 2000, Washington County launched the "Teen Health Fund" from an endowment provided by the state of Minnesota to address youth risk and health behavior.

The program kicked off with a survey that stated community members' top concern was suicide, Huntley said.

And the trend continued eight years later.

According to the 2008 Washington County Community Health Assessment Survey, almost 90 percent of respondents said mental health among children, adults and seniors is a primary concern.

"What happened in 2010 wasn't like out of the blue or the first time ever," Huntley said. "It was a cluster of events in a short amount of time that said more work needs to be done."

No secrets

Professionals say it's been difficult to measure improvement in teen mental health, since a lot of incidents go unreported.

"There are more (suicide) attempts," Huntley said. "And often that goes quietly unknown."

According to the 2010 Minnesota Student Survey, 18 percent of ninth grade girls who took the survey in Washington County said they thought about killing themselves during the last year, compared to 11 percent of sixth graders and 12 percent of 12th graders.

Penticoff said girls in ninth grade tend to be more vulnerable than older or younger age groups - they're going through a transitional phase and experiencing lots of changes.

"More girls are cutting, too, at that age," she said, adding, "Girls have struggled with being kind in that group for centuries and social media has exacerbated that."

The key to helping reduce further self-harm, Penticoff said, is to tell a trusted adult, counselor, parent or close relative.

And if that friend gets mad for being told on, it's OK because it's for their own safety.

"It's better to lose a friendship than a friend," she said. "You've got to tell somebody. It's not the time to keep secrets."

Through various suicide prevention awareness events, including 5K runs and fundraisers, as well as large, communitywide educational meetings, it's evident that parents, teens, teachers and coaches are working with local organizations to make a difference.

"I think that awareness has really been established in the community through the work that we've been doing," said Jean Streetar, program manager at the Washington County Department of Public Health and Environment. "Some of the safety nets are in place. Hopefully we see the rates dropping."


The next phase of the Suicide Prevention Collaborative involves a program dubbed "QPR," which stands for "Question, Persuade and Refer."

Oftentimes parents or teachers are unsure of how to approach struggling teens about suicide, especially how to ask them directly if they're contemplating it, Penticoff said.

Four Suicide Prevention Collaborative representatives will soon be certified in the QPR program and begin offering free seminars to the public after that.

"Suicide is preventable," Penticoff said.

Carlini, a filmmaker, is also working to promote suicide prevention with a movie called "My Senior Year."

Inspired by the events he experienced in high school, the film tells the story of a young man with suicidal thoughts. But in the end he finds the strength to overcome adversity.

"I wanted to make a film that shows high-schoolers and kids that you can overcome any situation," he said. "Sometimes kids think a bump in the road is the end of the world and really all it is a bump in the road ... You've got to let the storm pass."

Optimizing Mental Health for All Our Youth" will feature Dr. Nimi Singh from the University of Minnesota Department of Adolescent Health from 7-8:30 p.m. Thursday, April 4. Community questions will be taken from 8:30-9 p.m. A teen poster contest will kick off the evening at 6 p.m.

Riham Feshir
Riham Feshir is a reporter and photographer for the Woodbury Bulletin. Her coverage includes Woodbury City Hall, Washington County Board of Commissioners and business news.  Follow Riham on Twitter @RihamFeshir for the latest updates.