Preventing the Pain: Raising awareness about teen suicide

Health professionals say teen suicide is a "significant health problem," and we've experienced it in the Pine Belt.

Statistics show suicide is the third leading cause of death for teens in Mississippi. After a recent tragedy in Lamar County, we sat down with Superintendent Tess Smith.

"You know, just immediately my heart goes into my throat because there is always that fear, did a child hurt themselves, did anyone hurt themselves?  But especially one of our children," said Smith.

The national statistics have been felt in Lamar County. There have been five completed suicides in the school district since 2014, with the most recent just last month.

"It's an issue that we struggle with, we have concerns," said Smith. "I have children, nieces, nephews and there's no way, any time someone is suffering, of course it hits us all."

Oak Grove High parent Ashly Hudson reached out to WDAM, concerned after she said two friends of her son, an Oak Grove High student, attempted to take their own lives.

"You know, he had to bury one of his very best friends," said Hudson. "He truly questions why? Why are my friends doing this? Why do they think this is the answer?  And, I will say, he has a lot of guilt."

A new study from the Vanderbilt University Medical Center reports a dramatic increase for children who have thought about or attempted suicide. The report, published just this week, found hospital visits for suicidal thoughts and actual attempts more than doubled from 2008 to 2015. According to the study, half of those cases were in those aged 15 to 17.

"There's many factors involved when someone attempts suicide or completes suicide," said Ashley Holford, LCSW, with Pine Grove Behavior Health & Addiction Services. "We can't certainly point to one thing, suicide is very complicated."

Some, like Smith, said it could be social media. The Vanderbilt study turned to school.

"Late September to early October, we started to see an increase in the number of suicidal teenagers, and we think that correlates with the onset of school and that was really shown to be nationwide," said Dr. Greg Plemmons, Vanderbilt University.

"Certainly teenagers face many things out there in our culture and in their lives that can certainly cause them to be depressed and certainly be at risk for suicide," said Holford.

A risk factor is something that can increase chances something will happen. Just because you or your friend may have some of the risk factors listed below, doesn't mean that anything will happen. These risk factors are just something to watch out for.

  • Psychiatric disorders – Depression is most common
  • Alcohol and/or drug abuse
  • History of trauma such as physical or emotional abuse
  • Trauma from natural disasters such as tornadoes, hurricanes, flooding, oil spills, etc.
  • Major physical illness
  • Previous suicide attempt
  • Family history of suicide
  • Impulsive tendencies
  • Job or financial loss
  • Social loss
  • Easy access to lethal means such as drugs, guns, etc.
  • Lack of support from family and friends
  • Barriers to accessing healthcare, particularly mental health care
  • Exposure to others who have attempted suicide

"I kinda circled back around to the mom conversation of are you okay? Are you having these thoughts? What's going through your mind?" Hudson said.

Research shows there could be 25 attempts for every completed suicide. If we are looking at Lamar County, that could be total 125 attempts since 2014.

"Honestly, we create a list, like a watch list of students that we check in following that to make sure they are okay and ask if they need any assistance, check in with the parents and let them know they may be struggling," said Smith. "Anytime we have a tragedy in the district, we have to be mindful of that."

The recent tragedy also led Marty Pigott to sending an email to WDAM. He said he reached out "because the kids are worth it."

Pigott said he always wanted to "fit in" and be popular in high school. One night, that led to drinking and marijuana with the "cool kids."

"One girl took out a joint and started passing it around, I was faced with the decision of whether or not I smoke that joint and be accepted as part of the crowd or say no and risk total rejection," said Pigott.

He said that decision led him down a path of doing drugs, dealing and ending up in jail. When his dealer bailed him out of jail, Pigott said he found himself in a hotel room and thought suicide was the answer.

"There were several times I felt God telling me, that he delivered me through the drugs, the alcohol and the attempted suicide," said Pigott.

He's been clean and sober for 29 years. Pigotta said the recent tragedy in Lamar County pushed him to finally move forward with his project to spread awareness about suicide, Forward Vision Ministry.

"The message that I'm trying to tell these kids, you don't have to do the drugs and alcohol. It's okay to be you, it's okay to be scared. It's okay to not know what to do and there are people around you that love you, people around you that really care," said Pigott.

Pigott hopes to share his story and message so some may find an answer.

"Every time though, the message that they tell me, every single time, is they need to know somebody cares, they need to know somebody understands and they need to know that there's hope," said Pigott. "That they can overcome whatever it is that they are going through."

While every employee in the Lamar County School District has received training surrounding suicide awareness and prevention, Smith turned to the classroom for concerns. In the last few weeks, she met with her Superintendent's Advisory Board, made up of about 20 students.

"We have 'Tip Text,' which is an anonymous reporting mechanism and they told me very quickly we need to advertise it more, that more students will use it if they understood it," said Smith. "So I'm going to do exactly what they said, getting that out there so it can be used."

The texting service is monitored 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Smith said it is a simple way for students who may be concerned about others to get help. The district works with the Lamar County Sheriff's Office and Pine Grove in a time of need.

"We've been to homes at night, knocking on doors, because if they tell us the student is struggling, we are going to go to the home, no matter what time it is," said Smith.

The anonymous reporting may help clear the attitude, often negative, about those suffering from mental health issues or depression.

"The stigma is an obstacle for us to keep this conversation going," said Holford. "We need to have this conversation."

"There's tough conversations we have to have with our kids and unfortunately, this is now one of them," said Hudson.

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, 44,965 Americans die by suicide each year. On average, there are 123 suicides per day.

The Mississippi Department of Mental Health says four out of five people give warning signs, but many say you still may not see them.

  • Changes from typical behaviors such as having problems at school or not wanting to go out with friends
  • Personality & mood changes
  • Having problems concentrating
  • Losing interest in activities you enjoy
  • Feeling rotten inside
  • Changes in eating & sleeping
  • Talking, writing or thinking about suicide
  • Feeling hopeless, helpless and/or worthless
  • Using or increasing use of drugs or alcohol

Helpful resources for suicide prevention:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

Mississippi Department of Mental Health Helpline: 1-877-210-8513

Pine Grove Behavioral Health & Addiction Services:  601-288-CARE (2273)