As regional leaders respond to a recent spike in teen suicides in King County, calling it a serious public health issue, islanders are noting a small increase in suicides among young people on Vashon as well.
“I think we feel the sensitivity of this subject in our community right now,” said Lori Means, a parent educator at Vashon Youth & Family Services (VYFS), which has provided counseling and education along with the Vashon Island School District in response to recent suicides and other deaths. “We want to make sure we’re providing the information and support that parents and community members need.”
In King County, 11 children under age 18 died by suicide in 2012, nearly three times the annual average, prompting the county to examine the deaths and produce recommendations released this month for preventing future teen suicides.
On Vashon, three people between ages 14 and 22 have committed suicide in the last 12 months.
Officials from VYFS and the school district are currently planning programming for the newly declared Suicide Prevention Week in Washington, set for the second week in September.
“We will in some way be honoring our losses, and also, at the very least, making sure parents know ... what the signs are, what they can do if they think that their child is at risk and how they can respond to their child’s grief about losses in our community,” Means said.
Last October, VYFS worked with the Seattle-based Youth Suicide Prevention Program (YSPP) to provide counseling, support groups and suicide education after Palmer Burk, a well-known 14-year-old who attended Vashon High School, committed suicide.
In May, 20-year-old Samantha Burkart, a 2010 VHS graduate, died by suicide, and this month a 22-year-old island man also committed suicide.
Officials from Public Health – Seattle & King County say that Vashon’s suicide rate in recent years has been consistent with the county’s, but the number of recent suicides among young people is an anomaly. According to county statistics, during the 10-year period between 2002 and 2011, just one of 15 people who reportedly committed suicide on Vashon was under age 35.
Annie Kirk, a violence and injury prevention specialist at the public health department, called the three recent suicides of young islanders a concern, but warned that it’s too soon to call the tragedies a trend. Since the number is still small and represents just one year, she said, it’s not an increase that county officials would consider statistically significant.
“From our perspective, here at the health department, the mathematical or statistical significance answer isn’t the right way to approach the situation right now because we can’t give that answer,” she said. “Our primary concern right now would be family and friends and others in the community, making sure they connect to resources that the county has to offer.”
While last year’s 11 teen suicides in King County was nearly three times the average and the highest number since 1999, when there were seven, Kirk said that number also doesn’t signal a trend.
“We have to really compare data over time. There’s always fluctuation when it comes to any types of death or serious injury,” she said.
Even so, the county recently convened its Child Death Review (CDR) Committee, a group of 27 experts representing multiple agencies, to examine six of the 2012 suicides as well as suicide data from previous years.
While the committee, which also reviews other child deaths each year, found no link among the suicides, Kirk said, it released a list of recommendations it believes will help prevent future teen suicides.
The county is already working with local school districts and social service agencies to implement some of the recommendations, Kirk said, including increasing public awareness about suicide and its warning signs, educating families about safe firearm storage and assuring medical and mental health care providers are trained to screen for suicide risk factors.
The committee also recommended strong implementation of a bill passed this year in the Legislature that requires school district to provide additional training to teachers and other staff and to develop plans for recognizing and responding to troubled youth in their schools.
“There’s a lot that a lot of our agencies are doing already and a lot of things that are new opportunities moving forward,” Kirk said.
Some on Vashon have noted that along with the small spike in youth suicides on the island, there have been several other tragic deaths of young people in the past year.
Last fall, India Castle, 27, died in a high-profile incident that the sheriff’s office later ruled as a drowning resulting from a drug overdose. In February, high schooler Ryan Krug, 17, died in a single-car accident, and earlier this month, 20-year-old Katiana Taylor, a 2011 VHS graduate who lived in Seattle, died in a drowning off-island.
“I think that in general, our community has held a lot of pain this year,” said Means, with VYFS. “It’s endured and tolerated a lot of pain and loss, and we’ve also reached out and supported one another in really beautiful ways.”
Means said the school district and VYFS will continue to offer grief support groups that started after Burk’s and Krug’s deaths. The school district is continuing to provide staff training around both grief and suicide and will partner again with VYFS to recognize the first-annual Suicide Prevention Week in Washington next month, offering education during that week and perhaps an event, Means said.
“We’re glad this is happening,” said VYFS director Kathleen Johnson. “We’re grateful for the attention to the issue.”
Nationally, the suicide rate has remained mostly steady, though the number of suicides in middle-aged Americans has increased in the past decade. On Vashon, statistics for 2011 and 2012 are not yet available, but unofficial numbers from the King County Sheriff’s Office suggest the suicide rate on the island has remained at zero to three per year.
According to the latest Healthy Youth Survey results, last year 18.5 percent of 10th-graders on Vashon reported that they had seriously considered suicide in the last 12 months. Fifteen percent of 8th-graders and 15.4 percent of 12th-graders also reported that they had seriously considered suicide, all levels similar to state averages. Among 10th-graders, 15.5 percent said they had made a plan for how they would commit suicide, and 7.4 percent said they had actually attempted it one or more times. In eighth grade, 11.7 percent said they had made a suicide plan and 7 percent had attempted it, and among 12th-graders, 13.3 percent had made a suicide plan and 6.4 percent had attempted it. The Vashon responses were all close to state statistics for 2012.
Karyn Brownson, who heads training at YSPP and worked with the school district after Burk’s death last fall, called the three youth suicides on Vashon a concern but also stressed that it wasn’t a necessarily a trend or specific to the island. Statewide, suicide is the second leading cause of death among people ages 15 to 24.
“Vashon is not alone in experiencing suicides,” she said. “This is something that communities all across Washington have been facing, and every suicide is unique.”
She emphasized that most suicide victims exhibit warning signs, even young people, and said she encourages people to familiarize themselves with the signs and risk factors and not be afraid to approach those they’re concerned about.
“The community can move forward from this by trying to be a suicide safer community,” she said.
Suicide and other crisis hotlines
Crisis Clinic 24-hour Crisis Line: (206) 461-3222 or 866-427-4747
Crisis Clinic Teen Link: (206) 461-4922, evenings, 6 to 10 p.m.
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 800-273-TALK (8255)
For more information about Vashon Youth & Family Services’ counseling and programs, call 463-5511.
For suicide warning signs, risk factors and other information, visit www.yspp.org or www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.