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Youth suicide rates in North Carolina increasing alarmingly, experts say

Nora Donovan
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Victor Armstrong speaks on ‘alarming’ increase of NC children attempting suicide. 

Suicide rates among North Carolina children, between ages 10 to 17, skyrocketed, reports say. According to data obtained from the North Carolina Division of Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities and Substance Abuse Services, suicide as a cause of death among youth increased by 18% since 2017.
“With children, the rates have just about doubled within the last decade,” said Victor Armstrong, director of the North Carolina Division of Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities and Substance Abuse Services. 
According to Armstrong, suicide stands as the second leading cause of death among children in North Carolina. Data provided by the North Carolina State Center for Health Statistics showed motor vehicle injuries as the first leading cause.
“The most recent data I have seen on children suicide was in 2017 showing that 8.2% of North Carolina reported attempting suicide,” Armstrong said.
North Carolina State Center for Health Statistics counted 52 deaths by suicide among children in 2018 and 44 in 2017.
“The highest level of suicide attempts currently exists among African American students, which, a lot of people find alarming because there is a historical thinking that suicide didn’t impact kids of color. That’s the one that’s the most alarming number that we’ve seen in suicide rates,” Armstrong said.
The North Carolina Institute of Medicine reported that out of the 8.2% of reported suicide attempts among children, African American students were the highest at 11.1%, followed by Hispanic students at 9.3% and students reporting a race of ‘other’ at 17.9%.
“Part of the reason why we are seeing the increase in rates particularly in kids of color, because you also have to factor in things like access to care, people who are experiencing homelessness or poverty are going to have mental health challenges,” Armstrong said. “And then, you also have to factor in some of the chronic stress that accompanies systemic racism and things like that. That is a major part of impacting kids of color and the increase in suicides.”
Youth suicides remain not the only rates expanding. Across all demographics, deaths by suicide increased by 10% since 2016, North Carolina State Center for Health Statistics reported. 1,499 North Carolina residents committed suicide in 2018 and 1,362 in 2016.
“Right now as a matter of fact, in North Carolina, we are number 16 in terms of where we rank in suicide deaths,” Armstrong said. “People who die of suicide either have a diagnosis of high stress, trauma like financial security, housing instability, physical illness, things like that. All those things play into it.”
Suicide currently serves as the 11th leading causing of death among North Carolina residents, Armstrong stated.
Suicide rates increasing among substance abusers
Buncombe County residents who struggle with substance abuse also exist in the high risk category for suicide attempts, according to Christopher Scullin, executive director of operations at Oasis Recovery in Asheville.
“I have been in a position where someone is at the point of killing themselves and just cannot seem to grasp anything to help them. They have all this opportunity but aren’t really ready to make any change in their life,” Scullin said. “It is so hard, mentally trying to understand that, it is very challenging. I have seen clients that have come through our program that have recently killed themselves. Two specifically in the last two weeks.”
Scullin started working at Oasis Recovery in Jan. 2019. 
“A lot of the time, especially today, people use a little bit more than they usually do, hoping that they don’t wake up with the intention of killing themselves,” Scullin said. “You see that a lot especially with heroin now, it’s really easy to do a little bit too much and next thing you know you’re gone.”
Numbers provided by Oasis Recovery demonstrated an alarming 110% increase in clients who reported suicidal ideations since last year. In 2019, out of a total 246 clients, 145 reported feeling suicidal, while 305 out of 392 reported suicidal feelings as of Oct. 7th, 2020. 
“Specifically with substance abuse, most people experience a great deal of pain through, you know, outside consequences, internal conflicts, losing relationships, whatever it may be. I see time after time, it’s either get sober or suicide,” Scullin said. “It was that way for me.”
Oasis Recovery opened in Dec. 2018 on Charlotte street. According to Scullin, they exist primarily to treat substance abuse and the underlying causes that lead to unhelpful coping mechanisms in the first place. 
“With mental health, it’s a little different. They are kind of interconnected. Most people that have substance use disorders also have a mental health disorder,”  Scullin said. “We do an assessment when a person comes in and I would say it has been a while since I have seen someone that has never thought about suicide.”
North Carolina Institute of Medicine counted 1,783 deaths as a result of drug overdoses in 2018. 
“We see, I would say, four out of five clients come in, have suicidal ideations and have those specific suicidal ideations in their treatment plan. They are working on that and that entails self harm behavior, this negative thinking, whatever may come up for them,” Scullin said. 
Scullin identified with these statistics. As a recovering crack, heroin and xanax user, Scullin said he experienced feeling being in a dark, blank spot.
“I would do anything that could externally make me feel better. I started using at 14-years-old. At such a young age there were consequences that snowballed. I got kicked out of school, I lost my family, I got multiple felonies,” Scullin said. “Basically, it got to the point where externally there was nothing and internally there was nothing.”
25-year-old Scullin contemplated suicide many times.
“I have contemplated jumping off a bridge or driving my car into traffic or running into traffic or hanging myself,” Scullin said. “I didn’t have that in me so I would use substances to kind of cross that barrier. If I just take one too many pills, if I do this drug mixed with this drug, I try all these different combinations with the hope that I don’t wake up, that I don’t have to face these consequences, this reality, this life that I’m living.”
Scullin overdosed on drugs several times. As of Oct. 7, Scullin earned three years clean and implemented new programs at Oasis such as adventure therapy and guided meditations.
“The shitty thing is, we’re private, we get no money from the state, no grants, nothing like that. It is somewhat hard to have this type of treatment be accessible to everyone,” Scullin said. “We do provide scholarships. There are a lot of people that need help that cannot get the resources, there is a need for it.”
Community resources to prevent suicide
Asheville’s community remains committed to being a resource for suicide prevention and awareness, according to Nicole Rikard. Rikard currently serves as a volunteer and walk chair for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Western North Carolina chapter.
“I have been doing this since 2016. It fell off the map for a few years in the early 2000’s, it’s been back and forth. It’s a nationwide foundation. It is usually really hard to run because it’s part of the healing process for people so it changes hands as volunteers,” Rikard said. “There are usually two paid employees in the state so two people oversee more than a dozen walks and overnights plus training, it differs where they have people in certain areas. “
Rikard joined the Western North Carolina chapter of American Foundation for Suicide Prevention to honor her late husband. Rikard’s late husband served as Sgt. for the Asheville police department.
“My husband John died by suicide on Dec. 9th 2015. He had depression, anxiety, high stress, different traumas throughout life, but he always smiled and kept it going. He did talk about stuff quite a bit openly, but still no one expected it when it happened,” Rikard said. 
Rikard formerly served as a crime scene technician between Florida and Asheville for the past fifteen years, dealing with over a hundred suicide related calls.
“Each call is different and each story is so different, the biggest thing is letting people know to reach out and that it’s okay not to be okay,” Rikard said. “Really making sure people know a lot of professions hold high risks for suicides, while also helping erase the stigma.”
Rikard attributed the high suicide rates to people fearing losing their job, as well as the minimal access to health upkeep.
“Suicide comes with so many different facets, from brain chemistry on to differences and troubles. I know when I share my husband’s story, it saves lives,” Rikard said. “Usually when you put distance and time between the thought and the action, most times you can save a life. It doesn’t work for everything, we don’t have a cure all, but just being able to have someone to listen to you or listen to how it’s affected those left behind.”
Among all demographics, reducing the rates of suicide remains a persistent goal within Asheville’s community, according to Rikard.
“We want people to know there are other people out there that feel how they do and we are there to best support each other. That is where we have to work on the part of humanity, that just being there to listen to one another sometimes is one of the biggest rewards you can get out of it,” Rikard said.
Other Asheville resources include Survivors of Suicide support group, hosted by the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
“Offering survivors of suicide support is very important, a lot of times it runs in families, so if you offer support to someone who has lost someone to suicide, you may be preventing another suicide,” Dr. Grant Hellyer said, board member of the National Alliance of Mental Health, Western North Carolina chapter.
The important thing, Hellyer stressed, should be to talk about it.
“If you have a friend, often people are very uncomfortable talking about suicide, we often fear talking will cause it to happen,” Hellyer said. “I think that is not true, most of the time it is very important to listen to people on what they have to say about it. Too many times clues are given and we don’t wanna hear it because the thought makes us so anxious.”
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a national network of local crisis centers that provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Call 1-800-273-8255.

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