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Suicide third leading cause of death in Georgia for ages 10-24
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Laurelwood intake specialist Michelle Goins works at the Laurelwood intake office inside Northeast Georgia Medical Center, where assessments are first made for new patients. - photo by Scott Rogers

The dinner table is more than a place where families eat.

“It’s that one sacred time that opens the door where we can talk, where we’re connecting and we’re here together,” said Trisha Ziem, assessment coordinator at Northeast Georgia Medical Center’s mental health arm, Laurelwood.

And that can lead to teens and young adults talking about their emotions, which, in and of themselves, “aren’t bad,” Ziem said. “They become bad when they start impairing your functioning.”

Learn more about this series

In December, the Commission on Children’s Mental Health, which was created by Gov. Nathan Deal in June, released a report with recommendations on how to improve mental health services for children in Georgia. Read more about that work and what the issues look like in our community.   

And certainly before they start leading to much darker places, such as suicidal thoughts.

Suicide prevention is also a high priority of the state.

A Dec. 12 report by Georgia’s Commission on Children’s Mental Health recommends a “multipronged suicide prevention approach,” including the expansion of prevention programming, to reduce rising suicide rates among Georgia’s youth and emerging adults.

The report also recommends beefing up Georgia Crisis and Access Line staff during peak evening and weekend hours to support more callers, according to the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities.

The hotline is available 24/7.

“Suicide is a national public health concern,” says the state’s report, citing that, in 2015, it was the third leading cause of death in Georgia for youth and young adults ages 10-24.

From 2011 to 2015, suicide rates among this age group in Georgia increased from 11.6 to

12.5 per 100,000. In 2014, 20- to 24-year-olds in Georgia had the highest suicide rates of any age group — 12.94 per 100,000.

Also, according to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s child fatality review unit, 51 children ages 5 to 17 killed themselves in 2016.

The same number took their own lives in 2015. In 2014, it was 30; in 2013, 39; in 2012, 32. Last year, the youngest child to take his or her own life was 9 years old.

A huge number of Georgia children report that they have considered suicide, according to the Georgia Department of Education’s student health survey. Including grades 6 to 12, 58,583 students reported that they considered suicide in 2017.

The “most common circumstances of death” for the 10-24 age group include a current depressed mood, mental health concerns, treatment for mental illness, crisis within the past two weeks and an “intimate partner” concern, the commission’s report states.

“Over the past few years, Georgia has taken a number of steps to increase its suicide prevention efforts for youth and emerging adults,” the report says. “However, the need still exists to build upon these efforts with statewide education and outreach.”

Gov. Nathan Deal’s proposal to add nearly $23 million to Georgia’s child and adolescent mental health budget “represents a huge commitment to our kids and their families,” said Judy Fitzgerald, the commission’s co-chairwoman and commissioner of the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities.

“This level of commitment is unprecedented in the 20 years that I have been a social worker in Georgia,” she added in an email to The Times. “Youth suicide is a growing concern in our nation, and here in Georgia. It is vital to offer education, prevention and treatment options that can help avoid a crisis, and to ensure that assistance is just a call away.”

When a person calls the Georgia Crisis and Access Line, staff will “assess the individual’s needs and identify community resources to serve the person as close to home as possible,” according to the state agency.

Hotline professionals may transfer the caller to a peer support service, schedule an appointment with a local behavioral health provider or dispatch someone to the person’s home.

“We’ve been trying to educate people who come into the emergency department about that,” Ziem said.

Hotline number

The Georgia Crisis and Access Line can be reached 24/7 at 800-715-4225.

She said suicide prevention starts at home with parents having open, frank conversations with their children, asking such questions as “Are you feeling overwhelmed?” and “Do you need support from me?”

Those struggling with mental health issues can go to Laurelwood’s intake center near NGMC’s emergency room. There, an intake specialist will conduct a free assessment and speak to a doctor, who “will determine if in-patient treatment is necessary or if other treatment options are available,” according to the website.

If admission is needed, patients would stay in a 54-bed facility on the NGMC campus. The average length of stay is 3-5 days.

Another area resource is Avita Community Partners, an agency serving those with mental illness, developmental disabilities and addictive diseases.

“What we find in suicide is that folks who take their own lives … do so because they feel hopeless,” Avita CEO Cindy Levi said. “They just feel like they’re in a hole too deep and don’t know how to get out.”

Avita “looks at (suicide) as a permanent solution to a temporary problem,” she said.

“We want to work with folks to get them understand there is hope and there is a way you can move past this,” Levi said.

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