It’s not always this well-thought-out plan that a lot of people think it is. That’s why asking the right question at the right time really can be that life-saving tool.Christi Hedgepeth, Coastal Counseling Center executive director
RINCON — Suicide attempts don’t always allow for second chances.
Christi Hedgepeth got one and she didn’t waste it. In the wake of her daughter’s unsuccessful attempt to take her own life, she entered the mental health profession eight years ago.
“(My daughter) has been diagnosed as bipolar but she wasn’t at the time,” said Hedgepeth, the executive director at Coastal Counseling Center in Kingsland. “In a very impulsive action, she swallowed a bunch of pills.”
Her daughter’s attempt to kill herself left the concerned mother with overwhelming feelings of guilty.
“I thought, How in the world? I am an invested mom! How did I miss the signs?’ What it came down to is that I didn’t know them,” Hedgepeth said. “I wasn’t educated. I didn’t understand what mental health meant.”
Her daughter was in an “emotional hole” and Hedgepeth didn’t realize it. She mistakenly attributed the suicidal behavior to teen angst.
“She just started to not really care about her appearance,” Hedgepeth said. “She started to dress in like T-shirts and sweats, and not do her makeup.”
Hedgepeth’s subsequent years of training and experience with clients have proven to her that people need to quit shunning the subject.
“People are so fearful of talking about suicide,” she said. “There is a fear that it actually increases suicide but using the ‘s’ word is actually the best prevention tool you could have. You need to ask the direct question — are you having suicidal thoughts?”
Hedgepeth, whose daughter is currently thriving, said newspaper stories like this one are good conversation starters with troubled children.
She said, “Parents can go to their kids and say, ‘Hey! I read this article and there is an uptick in suicides in kids your age. Have you ever thought about it?’”
Suicide is unquestionably a growing concern. It is the second-leading cause of death in the United States for people 10-34. It was responsible for 47,500 deaths in 2019, which was one suicide every 11 minutes.
Learning how to pick up warning signs is crucial. As many as 75 percent of people who attempt suicide do or say something to indicate their state of mind and intentions before they act.
“They are leaving bread crumbs,” Hedgepeth said. “They are reaching out to people.”
The Effingham County School District remains vigilant in the fight against suicide. It has plans for prevention, intervention and postvention.
“Prevention is the best place to be with this,” said Terri Johnson, a veteran educator and student support coordinator.
The district is continuously adding to its number of counselors, social workers, nurses and administrators who have Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) certification.
“The most import thing for us, to me, was to get that awareness out there, and for people not to see suicide as a bad word so to speak,” Johnson said. “It’s something that we need to be able to talk openly about and discuss. That’s our first task — to be able to get rid of these misconceptions.”
ASIST teaches participants to recognize when someone may have thoughts of suicide and works within them to create a plan that will support their immediate safety.
“It’s really good training for anyone to take,” Johnson said, “so we want to expand that into the community, too, not just in our school system.”
The district’s other community partners against suicide include the Georgia Apex Program (Gateway Community Service Board), Effingham Family Connection, United Way of the Coastal Empire and Prevent Suicide Today/Mindful Self-Compassion (Chatham County Safety Net Planning Council Inc.).
An APEX Grant has been made mental health services available at Guyton Elementary School and Effingham County Middle School, and telemental services are set at Rincon and Sand Hill elementary schools, and Rincon Learning Center. APEX is funded by the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities.
The Apex Program promotes collaboration between community mental health providers and schools to provide school-based services and supports, including training for school staff, in hopes of facilitating the right care at the right time for children, young adults and families.
“It’s a team effort,” Johnson said. “It’s a combination of everyone valuing it and prioritizing it for the safety of children.”
Hedgepeth agrees that watchful eyes and alert ears are crucial to thwarting student suicide.
She said, “I do wish (my daughter’s teachers) had noticed, ‘Oh my gosh! This is a girl who used to look like a Kardashian who is now looking like a slob. Let me call her mama and see what’s up.’
“I didn’t deal with one hundred teenagers a day so I didn’t know the signs.”
There are many factors that contribute to suicide. According to Prevent Suicide Today, whose mission is to heighten awareness that suicide is preventable, they include:
— Relationship problem (42 percent)
— Crisis in the past or upcoming two weeks (29 percent)
— Problematic substance abuse (28 percent)
— Physical health problem (22 percent)
— Job/financial problem (16 percent)
— Criminal legal problem (9 percent)
— Loss of housing ( 4 percent)
According to a 2017 CDC Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 17.2 percent of the participants had seriously considered attempting suicide. Female students are twice as likely as males to harbor such thoughts. Lesbian, gay and bisexual youths seriously contemplate suicide at almost threes the rate of heterosexual youth.
Other elevated risk factors for children include:
— depressed teens
— low self-esteem
— change in school status
— depressed, molested or neglected
— learning disabled
— students in trouble
— drug/alcohol use
Suicide warning signs include:
— increased drug/alcohol use
— isolating from family/friends
— changes in sleep
— saying goodbye
— giving away possessions
Hedgepeth said suicides are frequently impulsive acts. Prevent Suicide Today says only 14 percent of suicides are planned.
“It’s not always this well-thought-out plan that a lot of people think it is,” Hedgepeth said “That’s why asking the question at the right time really can be that life-saving tool.”
Hedgepeth said her daughter wanted her life to end without ending her life. That attitude is known as “passive” suicide ideation.
“Her intent was not to die,” Hedgepeth said. “There was such a level of hopelessness and helplessness that it felt like an option — not death, but swallowing the pills. So another question that needs to be asked is, ‘Have you ever had thoughts of wanting to go to sleep and not take up again?
“That’s another indicator.”
Hedgepeth said a lack of “connectedness” is an obvious suicide indicator.
“Social media, the internet and virtual friendships are something, and they can be meaningful, but that is not enough to feel connected,” she said. “We, as a society, biologically, are raised to have a tribe. We want a tribe around us.
“Our body is not comfortable with being alone.”
Hedgepeth said family members and friends should maintain significant contact with troubled loved ones.
“If you see that lack of connectedness, if you see somebody changing jobs a lot, if you see somebody dropping out of activities, if they used to go to church all the time and they don’t anymore, if they used to belong to karate but it’s just not fun and they don’t care anymore, if they stopped going to school as much, if they stopped going out with their friends — all of those are signs that they are withdrawing from social interaction and that is a big trigger,” she said, “so keeping people connected, keeping people tied in and invested with others is important.”
Hedgepeth said suicidal people are occasionally hesitant to act on their thoughts out of concern for others.
“If somebody is living for someone else, that is a great temporary reason at that point to help a person stay alive,” she said. “Whoever they are staying alive for, of course, needs to stay connected with them.”
When school officials suspect a student might be in danger of harming themselves, they contact his or her parents and make recommendations for assistance.
“We can’t make parents take their children for help but we give them a resource list for who they can contact, call or get support for the child,” Johnson said.
The district sets up safety plans when concerns arise. They involve families, teachers and counselors.
“If the parents do not seek support for the child and we feel it’s needed and the child is crying for assistance, we enlist DFACS to work with the family and find support,” Johnson said.
Johnson said the school district is always looking for more partners to foster its preventive measures.
“It’s real important for all of us to be on the same page,” she said.
If you are having thoughts of suicide or need immediate assistance, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a national network of local crisis centers that provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Other options for assistance include:
— Crisis Text Line (test GA to 741741
— Georgia Crisis and Access Line (1-800-273-8255)
— The Trevor Project (1-866-488-7386, www.thetrevorproject.org)
— Veterans Crisis Line (1-800-273-8255, press 1)