With suicide rates on the rise nationally, rural West Virginia youth are more at risk than their urban peers.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as of 2017, suicide is the second-leading cause of death for college-aged teens and young adults ranging from 10-34.
“I think it should be acknowledged that suicide rates have risen 30% in the last 20 years across the nation and approximately 37% in West Virginia,” said Barri Faucett, director for Prevent Suicide West Virginia and board member for the American Association for Suicide Intervention–West Virginia Chapter. “We are in a position right now where we have a lot of contributing factors and characteristics that are associated with suicidal risk.”
Faucett said some of these factors include substance use/misuse, presence of mental health conditions and social economic status.
Prevent Suicide West Virginia is funded federally through the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, as well as the Bureau for Public Health and Behavioral Health. The program is comprised of Faucett, a program manager, and six youth intervention specialists. There are also six adult intervention specialists.
“There was just recently an article out about rural America and suicide rates and the rates are much higher in rural areas than in urban, especially with youth, particularly because of the lack of transportation to mental health services, as well as more access to firearms,” Faucett said.
According to the CDC, the gap between urban and rural suicide rates started growing in 1999, but began rapidly increasing after 2007.
In regard to the youth in the state, one of the biggest things Prevent Suicide WV works on is training within schools.
“There was legislation passed in 2015 called Jamie’s Law that actually provided for the opportunity to have suicide prevention discussion in schools,” Faucett said. “Secondary schools, as well as institutes for higher education, are supposed to have access for recourses on their sites.”
Faucett said during the course of the last four years, the program has trained over 100,000 children in a classroom setting for suicide prevention. Although those are not unduplicated numbers, the shift has still been dramatic.
The program is currently working toward instilling and embedding suicide screenings and assessments in existing electronic health records, specifically in mental health systems, so that they can identify more individuals in need. Faucett said they also hold education campaigns on firearm safety.
“Last year at the Civic Center, during just some of the basketball tournaments, we dispensed over 800 gun locks,” Faucett said.
Tristram Spitsnaugle, a youth intervention specialist who has worked with Prevent Suicide WV and Westbrook Health Services since 2018, provided some insight into the contributing factors, as well as what efforts are being done in West Virginia to combat this issue.
“What I witnessed in college was that for a lot of students, they are out on their own for the first time and up to this point they lived with their parents; so, it is kind of a daunting thing,” Spitsnaugle said. “And on top of that, to deal with the whole, ‘Well, what am I going to do for the rest of my life?’ and a lot of the ‘What ifs?’ that are typically present there.”
From his own experience, Spitsnaugle has found that reaching out for help is another stigma college students face.
“At the moment, we are definitely pressing towards reducing that stigma, but that stigma is absolutely there,” he said. “For the state, geography is really rough, as we can’t get services to everyone because of the way the state is laid out.”
Spitsnaugle said funding is arguably one of the biggest things the state is lacking in terms of prevention and intervention.
“If we had more funding we would be able to reach those people and transport them,” Spitsnaugle said. “We would be able to get more mental health services to them. We would be able to pass more laws and get things done to reduce the stigma.”
Hollyann Johansen, one of the regional adult interventionists at Westbrook Health Services, is working on a new avenue when it comes to addressing the prominence of suicide in the state.
“The grant that I work under is the first grant that ties in opioid response to suicide prevention and it is a fairly new thing,” Johansen said. “When we see individuals within our facility who might be struggling with opioid use or any kind of drug use in general– sometimes they might be struggling with suicidal thoughts.”
In terms of the prominence of suicide on college campuses, Johansen referred back to her own experience as a college student.
“There were plenty of people who would say, ‘If you need anything here is the wellness center’ or ‘here is a video with a counselor in it’, but that was the farthest the information ever got,” she said. “There was never the ability to have a conversation in the first place about what was going on. Whether it was an individual dealing with depression or anxiety, there was no conversation about how they can help you and why you should go talk to them.
“We need more agencies and entities taking responsibility for suicide prevention,” Faucett said. “I think everyone has good intentions, but something that I say all the time is that suicide prevention is the responsibility of everyone and within the capability of anyone.”