A recent Idaho Statesman editorial reported that the “Ada County Coroner’s Office has recorded eight juvenile suicides since August.”
That’s a suicidal cluster, believed to occur when others contemplating suicide see what they interpret as a success. And estimates are that 20% of U.S. teens seriously consider suicide.
Idaho is part of a belt of eight western states with suicide rates among the highest in the United States. In 2020, the average number of suicides per 100,000 was 9.1 worldwide, 16.1 in the United States, and 23.2 in Idaho.
The Idaho rate dropped in 2021 to 20.5 per 100,000, making us 12th highest in the nation. (2021 is the year used in the Center for Disease Control’s 2023 reports.) The rate in 2000 was 12.3.
We tend to regard anything that causes stress as increasing the risk of suicide, but if it were that simple, the suicide rate for whites would not be higher than it is for blacks and Hispanics.
And it’s hard to believe that people here suffer more from cyberbullying or unmet expectations than their counterparts in California, New York, or Georgia.
But there are some causes that might explain part of the difference. Guns are present in 60% of the homes in Idaho; only Montana, Wyoming, and Alaska have more and, yes, they have higher suicide rates. (Interesting note: 6% of Idaho firearm deaths are accidents; 7%, homicides; and 87% suicides.) Utah’s prevention measures include providing off-site gun storage for those who have suicidal urges.
And Idaho ranks 33rd in the nation for mental health therapists with 282.8 per 100,000 population. Oregon ranks third with 705.5. (Yet, Oregon’s suicide rate is still above the national average.) And Idaho has just half the school counselors recommended by the profession: one per 500 students rather than one per 250. That means, on average, each counselor deals with 100 students contemplating suicide.
Unfortunately, there are no statistics on why people commit suicide. We can believe that legislators like those in Idaho–unwilling to understand the agony of a woman denied an abortion or a trans person denied hormone therapy–have something to do with our high suicide rate, but even if a person leaves a note, there is no database.
Researchers are exploring new options in suicide prevention. The Boise School District uses two to indicate which students may be suicidal. School chromebooks report entries deemed suicidal and all students are asked to complete a mental health wellness survey. Both failed to prevent this cluster. Many students adopt a persona that they want people to believe they are and succeed in acting that out.
Another option is teaching students to recognize and report suicidal behaviors. One challenge is getting students to understand it’s okay to break promises not to talk if a life is at stake. I’ve talked with students about how one may never know if you helped; maybe your friend wouldn’t have done anything anyway. But not telling can leave you with lifelong grief.
We could also have students create a plan for times when they feel suicidal just as they do for escaping a fire in the home. Assure yourself this will pass. Play music that makes you feel good. Write a journal entry listing reasons to stick around. Phone people who make you feel good. Go to a public place and observe people around you. And, if nothing else works, go to a police station or hospital and scream.
About one out of every 2,000 people who contemplate suicide carry it out. That’s too many.