Nearly one-fourth of Stark County youths were at a higher risk of suicide a year ago, a new report from federal, state and local health officials shows.

The 134-page report, released by the Stark County Health Department, the Ohio Department of Health, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other public health agencies, provides the most complete picture of youth suicide in Stark County since a dozen teens living in Perry, Plain, Jackson, Northwest and Canton Local school district died by suicide between August 2017 and March 2018. Portions of the report were released in October and July.

Since the health agencies began their investigation in April 2018, four more teens have died by suicide, according to the Stark County Coroner’s Office.

The report does not investigate what factors might have contributed to the individual deaths, and it does not try to explain why a suicide cluster occurred in Stark County.

Instead, the authors examined the prevalence of suicidal behaviors among youths, key risk and protective factors, media coverage of suicide and suicide prevention initiatives taking place in Stark County. It also includes a series of recommendations to help local school, agencies and community members discuss future prevention initiatives.

To read the full report, visit www.starkcountyohio.gov/public-health.

Suicide prevalence

According to the report, the suicide rate among youths age 10 to 19 years old rose last school year to more than seven times the U.S. rate and 11 times the Stark County rate for the previous years.

A survey conducted last spring of 15,083 area students in grades 7 through 12 found that more than 5% of the surveyed students had attempted suicide at least once during last school year and 22.8% of them were at an elevated risk of suicide.

Female students thought about suicide more often, and suicide attempts during the past school year were highest among freshmen, survey results show.

The report explained that typically there’s no single cause for a death by suicide. It identified Stark County’s unusual constellation of suicide risk factors for youths as adverse childhood experiences, opioid misuse, death of a loved one by suicide in the past year, posting on social media about the suicide cluster deaths and having a strong emotional reaction to the Stark County youth suicide cluster.

It also found that students from different school districts often are highly connected, which means a traumatic event at one school could easily affect another school, regardless of how close they are geographically.

Actions urged

The report found factors associated with lower suicide risk include feeling close to friends, family and loved ones, having access to medical care when needed and displaying high or medium levels of resilience.

Based on the findings, the authors provided multiple recommendations, including:

• Increasing access to health and psychological care for youth, particularly mental health services. Nearly 16% of students were not always able to get medical or psychological care when needed, the report said.

• Reducing access to lethal means among youth at risk for suicide. The report found 23% of students has access to a gun, nearly twice the national average.

• Developing strategies to reduce youth substance abuse. Nearly half of the students surveyed had used alcohol or drugs at least once.

• Promoting connectedness. Local students feel less connected to their school and home than the national average.

• Teaching coping and problem-solving skills. Roughly 60% of students have experienced an adverse childhood experience, a higher rate than peers in Ohio and in the U.S.

• Training community members to identify people who may be at risk of suicide. Roughly 60% of students would tell a friend if he or she experienced suicidal thoughts, and half of them would tell a parent.

• Referring people substantially affected by suicide for further counseling or other services; 16% of students lost a friend or family member to suicide in 2017-18.

What’s being done

Stark County school, health and mental health officials say they’ve already begun establishing programs that address the report’s recommendations.

According to the report, Stark County agencies already had begun several suicide prevention initiatives before the cluster and increased their prevention efforts in response to the cluster. The report identifies 54 established prevention initiatives.

John Aller, executive director of the Stark MHAR, said the agency is working with local behavioral-health providers to offer same-day access to care for people who are at risk. It also is working with local providers, hospitals and doctors to standardize screening tools used to determine if a person is at risk for suicide.

Building resiliency is another piece of the Stark MHAR’s strategy, he said. The agency has funded resiliency programs in eight school districts and is hoping to continue, and possibly expand, that funding next year.

“The reason resiliency is so important is you’re never going to prevent kids from having challenges or bad things happen to them, but part of the strategy is, what kind of internal focus or mechanism do they have to be able to bounce back from those things?” Aller said. “How are we building resilient kids who can face adversity or challenges, and how adept are they at bouncing back and learning from that and moving on from it?”

Efforts by local schools have included: Offering more mental health counselors, partnering with local law enforcement agencies to provide more safety programs, gun locks and more school resource officers and establishing the See Something, Say Something anonymous reporting line to better identify and support those at risk of suicide. Many schools also plan to begin using social-emotional learning programs at earlier ages.

 

Canton Repository writer Shane Hoover contributed to this report.