Recent developments in Nebraska and Iowa show the need for both states to put increased focus on suicide prevention.
Teen suicide prevention may need greater focus in Douglas County, for example, in light of a new survey of students in 16 public high schools here.
About 12.5 percent of Douglas County students who responded to the survey said they had attempted suicide over the past year. That was considerably higher than the figures nationally and statewide, both just under 8 percent.
And while 2.6 percent of high schoolers surveyed statewide and 2.4 percent nationally say they needed medical attention after a suicide attempt, the figure among Douglas County students who responded was more than 6 percent.
In Iowa, meanwhile, a new law has directed a panel to develop possible suicide prevention training requirements for school personnel. The law is a response to a series of teen suicides that hit the state in 2012 — some 32 Iowa teens took their lives that year. Gov. Terry Branstad, in an additional response to the problem, held a state conference on bullying.
In both Nebraska and Iowa, suicide is the second- leading cause of death for teenagers. Between 2004 and 2008, suicide took the lives of about 150 Nebraskans aged 15 to 24. During that period, more than 3,000 were treated in hospitals due to self-harm or attempted suicide.
At the same time, it's true that Nebraska — through its schools, nonprofits and government agencies — has been making progress on the issue.
In 2010, organizations from across Nebraska held a well-attended conference to develop a strategy to strengthen suicide prevention, using a three-year federal grant. The result has been an energetic response, with coordinating support from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Public Policy Center and the Nebraska State Suicide Prevention Coalition.
“A lot of activity has been taking place,” says Dr. David Miers, co-chair of the state suicide prevention coalition. Miers is counseling and program development manager for mental health services at Bryan Medical Center in Lincoln.
Since the 2010 conference, around 4,000 Nebraskans in schools, law enforcement and other professions have been trained in suicide awareness techniques. Some school personnel have received intensive instruction to become specialists on suicide prevention. Communities have adopted awareness activities, including annual fundraising walks.
A well-constructed youth suicide prevention website was created (http://youthsuicideprevention.nebraska.edu/). Nebraska public television developed a suicide prevention program focusing on youth, the elderly and veterans. Copies of the program have been shown to youth groups across the state. The Kim Foundation and the state suicide prevention coalition provided a toolkit to Nebraska high schools.
“I'm very encouraged by the dedicated work of the folks out there,” says Scot Adams, director of the Department of Health and Human Services' Behavioral Health Division. Nebraska has begun to see improvement in its suicide rate in recent years, he notes.
Efforts since the 2010 conference have reached more than 12,000 Nebraska military personnel and their families, Adams says.
The coordinated effort in individual Nebraska communities on suicide prevention has been impressive, Adams says. During a visit to North Platte, he was struck by how effectively local organizations worked together on the issue.
The statewide trend also has been positive in the annual surveys of Nebraska high school students. In 1991, 28 percent of respondents said they had considered suicide in the previous 12 months. By 2003, the figure was 18 percent. By 2011, it was 14 percent.
As for the future, Adams says priority areas for suicide prevention in Nebraska should include youth, the elderly and returning military personnel.
It's also appropriate to consider whether more should be done to encourage a statewide suicide prevention strategy. The Nebraska State Suicide Prevention Coalition has worked since 1999 to be the centralizing group for suicide prevention coordination without any central funding.
When a suicide occurs, the emotional blow is devastating. All the more reason for Nebraska and Iowa to do their utmost to tackle this heartrending social problem.