B.G. photographer campaigns to help suicidal teens

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter

Published:

 
photoBattle Ground photographer Korie Accetta photographs Jacinda Hanks at Hockinson Meadows Park, Saturday, April 21, 2012.

(/The Columbian)

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Countywide, suicide-related calls hold steady since ’11

The number of suicide-related calls across Clark County hasn’t changed significantly since January 2011 based on data from Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency.

In 2011, CRESA received an average of 143 suicide-related calls each month. During the first three months of 2012, operators received an average of 149 calls each month.

In Battle Ground, many of the suicide-related calls are concerning teens and adults in their early 20s, according to the police department.

Countywide, the teen suicide deaths in the first quarter of this year have already surpassed the annual average from 2000 to 2010.

During that 11-year span, 29 youths ages 10 to 19 died by suicide in Clark County, an average of 2.6 per year. In 2011, six youths in the same age group died by suicide. In the first three months of 2012, three local youths took their own lives, according to Clark County Public Health.

(The 2011 and 2012 data is preliminary and includes only youth suicide deaths that occurred in Clark County. Residents who died in another county may not be included in the totals.)

— Marissa Harshman

Here’s what to look out for

Risk factors

James Mazza, professor and director of the University of Washington’s psychology department, said the following are risk factors for youth suicide:

• Mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety and drug or alcohol abuse.

• Lacking connectedness to school and peers. Does he/she have a social network? Good friends?

• Negative personal history, such as getting into trouble at school, missing classes and being an outsider.

• Personal isolation, such as not having many friends, questioning one’s sexuality and experiencing bullying.

• Negative self-image. Kids who don’t feel good about themselves, see themselves as worthless or as a burden to their friends and family.

Warning signs

Mary Jadwisiak, local coordinator for the Youth Suicide Prevention Program, said the following are warning signs that a person may be considering suicide:

• Depression. Signs of depression in youth include irritability, impulsivity, high-risk behavior or changes in eating or sleeping patterns. If it’s a new behavior and lasts more than two weeks, it could be depression.

• Talking about suicide.

• Previous suicide attempt.

• Giving away possessions.

• Increase in drug and alcohol usage.

• Becoming withdrawn.

Resources

• Clark County Mental Health Crisis Line: 360-696-9560 or 800-626-8137.

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

• The Trevor Project, LGBT support and hotline: 866-4-U-TREVOR (866-488-7386); http://www.thetrevorproject.org.

• Youth Suicide Prevention Program: http://www.yspp.org.

ReachOut.com: http://www.reachout.com.

• What A Difference A Friend Makes campaign: http://www.whatadifference.samhsa.gov.

• Suicide Prevention Resource Center: http://sprc.org.

• American Association of Suicidology: http://www.suicidology.org.

BATTLE GROUND -- Korie Accetta knows what it feels like to hurt.

The Prairie High School graduate was the target of relentless bullying as a teenager. She was a good kid, did well in school and excelled in dance.

But, for whatever reason, she was an easy target. She was called horrible names. Students spit on her as she walked through the cafeteria.

“I contemplated suicide,” the 26-year-old said.

In the first three months of this year, the Battle Ground community has lost three teenagers who died by their own hands -- a statistic that shook Accetta.

So the Battle Ground photographer started doing what she does best: taking photos.

There are the skateboarders with “I matter” written on their forearms. A kissing couple with the words “We matter” drawn on their heart-shaped hands.A smiling young woman holding a sign that reads, “Really … you matter.”

The photos are the heart of Accetta’s “You Matter” suicide awareness campaign aimed at letting kids who are hurting know they are loved.

“I wondered, ‘Why is this happening to me?’ ‘What did I do to deserve this?’” Accetta said of her teenage years. “This is why. I’m supposed to help people who feel that way.”

Accetta isn’t the only one in the Battle Ground community responding to the recent youth suicides.

City officials, school administrators, public health workers, law enforcement and community members are rallying together in the wake of the losses, searching for ways to prevent more deaths.

Community alarmed

Battle Ground police officers first noticed what appeared to be an increase in the number of suicide-related emergency calls several months ago.

In response, the department started tracking the number of 911 calls made in the city limits for suicide threats, attempts and deaths.

From Jan. 1 to March 14, police responded to one suicide death, eight suicide attempts and 16 suicide threats, Police Chief Bob Richardson said. The numbers don’t include calls regarding people who live in the area but are outside the city limits, such as the two other youth who died this year.

In Battle Ground, many of the suicide-related calls are concerning teens and adults in their early 20s, Richardson said.

Richardson shared those statistics with the Clark County Public Health Advisory Council and the area law enforcement council.

“Many other cities don’t appear to be having the problem we’re having,” Richardson said.

Without historical data available for comparison, Richardson said it’s difficult to know whether the Battle Ground call volume is unusual.

Still, the recent deaths caused alarm in the community and have left people wondering why young people are taking their own lives.

They’ve also caught the attention of other teenagers.

Sixteen-year-old Blake Williams said students in the high schools are talking about the number of teens taking their own lives and saying they wish they could have done something to help. Williams, who recently transferred from Battle Ground High School to Summit View High School, had two peers die by suicide in the last couple years.

In February, Williams connected with Accetta at a You Matter campaign event. Ever since, Williams has been an advocate for the group, helping to spread the message throughout the high schools.

“I think it’s good because it’s a fun way to get the word out there about it,” Williams said. “If they do need something, they know they can go talk to someone for help, that anyone will help.”

Wondering ‘Why?’

The “Why?” question plaguing the community isn’t an easy one to answer.

“We know that suicide is a really complex problem with complex solutions and complex causes,” said Mary Jadwisiak, Youth Suicide Prevention Program coordinator for Clark and Cowlitz counties. “There’s no one solution just like there’s no one cause.”

There are risk factors and warning signs, however.

The biggest risk factor is the existence of mental health issues, said James Mazza, University of Washington professor and director of the school’s psychology program. That includes depression, anxiety and drug or alcohol abuse.

Other risk factors include lacking connections to their school and peers; negative personal history, such as getting in trouble at school and missing classes; personal isolation; and not feeling good about oneself, like they’re a burden to family and friends, Mazza said.

While family, friends and community members may search for the single cause or event that led to a suicide, Mazza said they won’t find it. The reasons behind suicides include multiple factors and build over time, leaving the person feeling like their only option is to end their life, he said.

“Someone doesn’t wake up one day and say, ‘I’m suicidal. I want to end my life,’” Mazza said.

What’s important, Mazza said, is talking about suicide. Parents need to talk to their children about their feelings and the conversation needs to be free of judgment, he said.

“Talking about suicidal behavior needs to happen just like talking about sex,” Mazza said. “We need to let our young people talk about these taboo topics.”

Suicide symposium

Later this month, Battle Ground Public Schools will host Mazza and others from the city, prevention programs, law enforcement and public health department for a symposium about preventing suicide.

Battle Ground isn’t the first community to turn to Mazza for guidance; he’s assisted other communities reeling from teen deaths.

Mazza said he will provide education about risk factors, warning signs and suicide prevalence. He’ll also talk to district staff members about how to implement a screening method to identify kids who may be at risk and get them the help they need.

For the past four years, the Battle Ground school district has offered a suicide prevention program at its two high schools.

The Youth Suicide Prevention Program trains a group of students who then educate their peers, said Jadwisiak, the local program coordinator. The goal isn’t to create mini-counselors. Instead, the program educates students about how to identify a person who may be suicidal and how to get him or her help, she said.

Battle Ground and Prairie high schools offer the program to its students every year. The district prefers the small-group settings so staff can monitor the students and watch for signs that a student might be struggling, said Denice Harvey, an administrator at the school district. Schoolwide assemblies don’t afford staff that opportunity, she said.

This year, however, the schools have debated whether to do the classroom presentations in the wake of suicides, Harvey said.

“This year, we’ve struggled with doing it because we don’t know whether to draw attention to it,” she said.

In addition to the peer program, school counselors are always trying to improve prevention efforts, Harvey said. When counselors identify students who may be contemplating suicide, they work with the parents and students to try and get the child help. Sometimes, they’ll even call law enforcement if they believe the child is an immediate risk to him- or herself, Harvey said.

“The role of school counselors in this day and age is to support students’ achievement and academic success,” she said. “School counselors are not therapists. That’s not in their purview.”

Ultimately, Harvey said, students are only in school for six hours a day. That means the efforts need to continue beyond the school walls, she said.

“This is a community issue,” Harvey said. “This is not a school issue.”

Options for youth

Battle Ground Mayor Lisa Walters hopes offering teens positive, healthy activities will help keep them connected to the community outside of school. One example is a teen dance that ROCKSOLID Community Teen Center in Brush Prairie recently hosted. Another possibility is community movie nights throughout the summer, Walters said.

The mayor is also working with the police chief, Superior Court Judge Gregory Gonzales and school officials to help kids who get in trouble with the law by launching a youth court in the city next year.

In youth courts, typically an adult judge oversees the courtroom but youth make up the jury and hand down sentences, Chief Richardson said.

Research has shown teens who receive peer-driven sentences generally take more responsibility for their actions, Richardson said. Recidivism rates among teens in youth courts are also lower, he said.

In addition, Richardson hopes a youth court will educate teens about the criminal justice system and show them that minor offenses don’t have to stay with a person for their entire life.

“Going to court, especially for a minor offense, isn’t the end of the world,” Richardson said.

Richardson said he also hopes a youth court can “take some of the scariness and mystique out of the criminal justice system for these kids so they don’t overreact in many different ways.”

Positive messages

While youth are the target of Korie Accetta’s You Matter campaign, she also hopes to reach parents and other adults in the community.

In March, Accetta teamed up with other local photographers and a local church to host award-winning suicide prevention speaker Mike Miller. The photographers gave free 20-minute photo sessions in exchange for donations to the You Matter campaign. They used the money to bring Miller to town for a community event.

Sixteen-year-old Blake Williams, who connected with Accetta at a fundraising event earlier this year, has helped spread the word about You Matter by wearing campaign T-shirts to school and explaining the group’s message to inquisitive classmates.

“I think it’s making a difference,” Williams said.

“I think there’s kids that want help but don’t know who to go to because they don’t want to be judged or thought differently of,” he added. The campaign shows kids that people do care and want to help, he said.

Accetta plans to continue holding fundraisers to bring more speakers to Clark County. She also plans to continue her photo campaign to try to reach the kids who are silently screaming for help.

Her message to those kids is simple: “You are loved. I was there, and I overcame it.”

Marissa Harshman: 360-735-4546; http://twitter.com/col_health; http://facebook.com/reporterharshman; marissa.harshman@columbian.com.