Tennessee teen suicide rates on the rise

Suicide remains the second-leading cause of death for ages 10-19.

KNOXVILLE (WATE) – It’s a topic that is rarely discussed at the dinner table. For years, suicide has been a subject that many people steer away from. Some fear that talking about it will only plant the idea in a child’s mind and trigger suicidal thoughts.

“A common myth is if we ask a child or an adolescent about if they think about killing themselves or if they’re having thoughts of dying, or having thoughts of ‘I’d be better off if I didn’t wake up,’ then that will give them an idea and that’s actually contrary,” said Lori Ramey, Director of Crisis Services for the Helen Ross McNabb Center.

(Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network)
SOURCE: Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network

In recent years, the suicide rate has steadily risen in the United States, and the same proves true in Tennessee. The problem is even more concerning when addressing teen suicide statistics.

“I got to a place where I didn’t know how to ask for help. I felt judged and misunderstood, and felt unsafe to ask for help. And I just got to a place where I didn’t know if I could go on,” said Carey Menefee, a suicide survivor.

Carey Menefee, suicide survivor.

Menefee attempted suicide three different times with six months separating each attempt, at age 14. Each incident, she went into her mother’s cabinet and took as many pills as she could find until she became unconscious. Her third attempt sent her to the hospital, where she spent three weeks recovering.

During her time admitted, she met other teenagers who were there for the same reason. Like her, they did not have anyone to talk to about their struggles. She noted it was the nineties and the topic of suicide made people uncomfortable.

“All of us felt like we didn’t know how to ask for help,” Menefee said.  “I was with those girls who were experiencing the same pain that I was experiencing and there was no language to describe it to the adults. I knew I wanted to help to make that language.”

Since then she has devoted her life to helping suicidal teens with their battle. Menefee said though the country has made some progress in minimizing the stigma linked to suicide, she said it still has a long way to go.

“I don’t feel like it’s an open dialogue,” Menefee said. “The more casual, the more often we can use these words, the more likely these kids are going to talk about it. They’re not going to be afraid to use these words when the time comes, if it does.”

Menefee, who now mentors suicidal teens through the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network, said young people get weighed down by several core feelings.

“I use the word loneliness when I mentor teens who have experienced suicidal thoughts or made attempts, because that is what I hear: ‘I’ve been so lonely, I’ve been so misunderstood, nobody wants me, I would be better off/they would be better off without me,’” she said.

10 leading causes of death by age group, United States, 2014 (CDC)
10 leading causes of death by age group, United States, 2014 (CDC)

Suicide remains the second-leading cause of death for children between the ages ten to 19. According to the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network, 48 people in that age group completed suicide in 2015, compared to 32 in 2011.

That’s not even counting the number of teens who have attempted suicide or have considered it. In Knox County, more than six percent of high school students have tried to die by suicide while 14.5 percent have thought about it.

Ramey said the circumstances for every suicide are different, but believes factors like social media, bullying, depression and isolation do play a role in increasing suicide rates.

“I think all of it has shifted in that our pace is very quick, so as parents, as teachers, as coaches, as friends everything is moving so quickly and children may not have that consistent support that they need,” Ramey said.

Experts urge parents to reach out to their teenagers and be mindful of the warning signs.

“Common warning signs would be withdrawal, maybe a change in sleep pattern, appetite,” Ramey said. “Just a really big change can trigger for a child that negative thinking pattern that could be potentially harmful.”

More: Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network statistics

Other indicators include changes in behavior, talking about death and giving away prized possessions, as well as becoming disinterested in favorite activities.

“We know these things in our guts, and if you feel something in your gut, pay attention,” Menefee said.

Every child that dies by suicide leaves behind mourning loved ones, which the counseling community refers to as “survivors of suicide.” Experts say it’s a loss parents never fully recover from.

“You will never forget this has happened, you will of course always remember your child, you hold your child in your heart and your soul forever, but we hope that we can walk with them so they can get through it,” said P.J. Alexander, Knoxville-based mental therapist.

Alexander discovered an unexpected passion for helping survivors of suicide cope with their grief. Eighteen years ago, she started the Knoxville Suicide Grievers Support Group, providing those left behind by suicide with a space for closure and healing.

She leads a two-hour discussion to a group of about 25 people once a month, helping parents understand the motivations behind their child’s suicide, accept the finality of their death, and find the courage to move forward.

“There’s a lot of questioning about what did I miss, what did I do wrong, did I do something wrong, so blame is tragically a part of this process,” Alexander said.

Alexander and other medical experts urge parents, and the greater community, to seek suicide education.

Those who won their battle with suicide and those who help people through the process hope to see mental health and suicide education in public schools one day.

They also hope the topic becomes one that is freely discussed in the home and in public forums, because they agree that the answer to curbing teen suicide rates lies in open-dialogue.

“Our goal is to eradicate this,” Alexander said. “What more can we learn, what more can we do, what can we do for preventative measures, so that families don’t have to go through this tragedy.”

If you have thoughts of suicide, or are concerned about someone who does, help is available. You can call Helen Ross McNabb’s Crisis Center at (865) 539-2049 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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