Tennessee suicides on the rise among adults and youth, local and state mental health experts weigh in

Brandon Paykamian • Jan 19, 2019 at 5:31 PM

According to the Tennessee Department of Health, three Tennesseans lose their lives every day to suicide — the ninth-leading cause of death in Tennessee. 

And suicide numbers seem to be rising throughout the state, according to a report released Wednesday by the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network, which cited 1,163 recorded suicides in 2017 — up from 1,110 the previous year. However, local statistics were mixed, according to the latest numbers released by the TSPN from 2017. 

In Sullivan County, suicide was down from 33 to 29 cases per 100,000 residents from 2016 to 2017. In Washington County, that number rose from 20 to 24. Suicides fell from 11 to 7 per 100,000 residents in Carter County, while the rate rose from 12 to 16 in Greene County and fell from three to two in Unicoi County. 

TSPN Executive Director Scott Ridgway said the numbers are still troubling, despite a decrease in some areas of the state. 

“One death by suicide is one death too many,” he said. 

Perhaps most alarming was the rise in suicides among Tennessee's youth. In 2017, there were 142 youth deaths by suicide, representing the 10-24 age group, with 51 of these deaths representing children between the ages of 10-17. Suicide by children increased by 24.4 percent from 2016 to 2017 and 54.5 percent from 2015 to 2017.

Some findings include a rise in the number of female adolescents using more lethal means, according to Ridgway, who said it’s important for adults to take threats of suicide among youth more seriously. He said adults need to learn to talk to youth about their mental health and the factors that play into depression and suicide among young people in Tennessee and locally. 

“The other thing we’re seeing is that, often, adults don’t take our young people seriously. Any time a child verbalizes a wish to die, we need to take them seriously,” he said. “Suicide is a very complex issue, and nobody dies from suicide from one issue — it’s a set of reasons.”

Frontier Health Senior Vice President Sherri Feathers, who also serves on the TSPN state advisory council, agreed with Ridgway about the importance of having conversations with young people about suicide and depression and taking ideation seriously. She said local mental health care providers have witnessed a rise in suicidal ideation among youth. 

“I think over the past couple of years, we have seen an increase in the kids we see in crisis,” she said. 

Feathers said there are a number of reasons why the rise has been happening, citing some media, including shows like “Thirteen Reasons Why,” which follows the chronicles of a group of peers dealing with the aftermath of a suicide. While it did raise some important discussions, she said the messaging behind shows such as these could be hard to interpret without an “adult to process it with.”

“It was a double-edged sword,” she said. “It was kind of glamorized because you had the person who completed suicide narrating the story.

“There was a sense of retaliation to the other teenagers in it,” she continued, adding that the show didn’t seem to emphasize the “finality” of suicide. 

But Feathers said one message young people can take away from shows about suicide and the reality of suicide and depression in real life is the need to reach out to each other. 

“If you see someone who is struggling, don’t be afraid to ask them the tough questions and give them support,” she said. “It’s very important that we, as a community, do not place blame when that happens to a family and reach out to the family (and friends) and provide support.

“Sometimes people hesitate to provide comfort because we don’t know what to say, but just being there in their presence can be enough,” she added. 

For more information on suicide prevention, Ridgway encouraged Tennesseans to visit www.tspn.org. If you are in need of help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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