Depression happens. Suicide doesn’t have to.
And to deter suicide requires a change in a community’s atmosphere.
That’s according to Aaron Chidester, executive director of Unite4Life, a Vancouver, Washington-based non-profit organization that focuses on the prevention of suicide.
And those are the key message points he brought to local youth and adults in a series of presentations in area schools last week.
The Tooele County School District brought Chidester in to help the community learn more about suicide in light of suicide deaths by Tooele County students this year.
Since school started last August, there have been four student deaths by suicide, according to the district.
“Our school family is hurting,” said Scott Rogers, district superintendent, who has a background in psychology in both school and private practice. “It is OK to talk about suicide, and to prevent suicide we need to start talking.”
Changing a community’s atmosphere does start with talking, Chidester said.
“Suicide is not a scary dirty S-word,” he said. “Talking about suicide doesn’t cause suicide. That’s a myth.”
Chidester, now 37, had his first brush with suicide when he was 21. He was in a drug rehabilitation program in San Diego and a friend in the program committed suicide.
Later, while working as a youth minister in California, two youths in his community died by suicide within months of each other.
“I said to myself, ‘Somebody has to do something about this,’” Chidester said. “And then I realized that I was that somebody.”
He went on to found Unite4Life. He completed a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Washington State University and certified in suicide prevention through the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, the American Association of Suicidology, and Dare to Live.
After an hour-long, high-energy presentation at Tooele High School Thursday afternoon, Chidester left the students with two key points.
“If you are hurting, don’t go through life alone,” he said.
He followed that advice with, “If you have a friend that is hurting, reach out to an adult and get help.”
Depression, Chidester said, is not uncommon.
Nearly all students go through a period of feeling down or depressed between the ages of ten and 24, according to Chidester.
“Depression is more than feeling sad. With depression you feel down or low for a period of more than two weeks,” he said. “It can be described as feeling like you have the flu.”
One of the problems with recognizing and treating depression is that people have been trained by society to keep their feelings to themselves, according to Chidester.
“We don’t talk about it and we definitely don’t get help,” he said.
Chidester described suicide as having a beginning, middle and an end.
“The problem is you can’t see the end from the middle,” he said. “A depressed person’s natural ability to think rationally is not there.”
Chidester described three types of depression: circumstantial depression, chemical depression and drug related depression.
Circumstantial depression is when things go wrong in your life that cause you to be depressed. Chemical depression, which can occur any time during adolescence, is an imbalance in brain chemicals. Drug related depression is brought on by dumping depressants, including alcohol, into the body.
Warning signs of suicide, according to Chidester, include feelings of hopelessness, self-hatred, excessive fatigue, irritability, and anxiety.
Youth that become suicidal may stop normal activities and become isolated. They may increase their use of alcohol and other drugs, start giving away their belongings, and participate in excessive risk taking and self-harm.
Chidester’s list of signs for depression and suicidal thinking include changes in behavior, personality, sleep habits, and eating habits. Youth thinking about suicide also may make verbal threats of suicide or display an unusual fascination with death or dying.
While these signs are also the signs of general adolescent stress, if they are observed it does no harm to discuss to talk to the young person.
“Say you observe these things in your son or daughter,” Chidester said. “You sit down and talk with them in a calm manner and say ‘Hey, I’ve noticed these things, are you thinking about suicide? And they say ‘no.’ Wonderful! You know they aren’t thinking about suicide and you just had a meaningful conversation with a teenager.”
When communicating with a hurting young person Chidester recommends that adults remain calm, avoid judgment or getting angry.
He also told adults to avoid dominating the conversation by trying to offer advice or attempting to solve the problem. Instead Chidester said adults should listen, repeat back what they hear, and ask questions.
Offer hope and encouragement, and get the person to the help they need, he said.
Suicide resources available in Tooele County include Valley Behavioral Health where teen crisis professionals are available during the day by calling 435-843-3520. In the evening and on weekends, call Tooele County dispatch at 435-882-5600 to reach a VBH mental health worker.
Parents or youth may also drop in at Tooele County Youth Services at 23 S. Main for assistance.
The national suicide prevention lifeline phone number is 1-800-273-TALK.
Suicide Warning Signs
• Talking about wanting to die
• Looking for a way to kill oneself
• Talking about feeling hopeless or
having no purpose
• Talking about feeling trapped or
in unbearable pain
• Talking about being a burden
• Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
• Acting anxious, agitated or recklessly
• Sleeping too little or too much
• Withdrawing or feeling isolated
• Showing rage or talking about
• Displaying extreme mood swings
The more of these signs a person shows, the greater the risk. Warning signs are associated with suicide but may not be what causes a suicide.
Here’s what to do if someone you know exhibits the above suicide warning signs:
• Do not leave the person alone
• Remove any firearms, alcohol,
drugs or sharp objects that could
be used in a suicide attempt
• Call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention
Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255)
• Take the person to an emergency
room or seek help from a medical
or mental health professional
Source: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention