COMMUNITY VOICES: Suicide is an epidemic and our children are suffering the most

In 2016, I stood in the driveway with my family as the Sanger Fire and Police Department surrounded our neighborhood. Less than a mile away was the Water Tower, the tallest structure that planted itself in the middle of the suburbs of Sanger. On top of the Tower, sat a young boy who blanketed the small rural town with his quiet stare — his family and friends patiently waiting for his return home.

By 11:26 p.m., the young boy jumped, landing on the roadway of Greenwood. He was immediately pronounced dead.

Within one year, the community had witnessed multiple suicides and suicide attempts. As we mourned the loss of our children, we held community forums to discuss mental health issues while providing grief counseling. In a town that’s made up of 24,000 people, we’ve never felt more alone. And yet, despite feeling confined in our own sorrow, we continued to rise.

However, these experiences aren’t isolated to just the small town of Sanger.

This year, I introduced Senate Bill 331,which would require that all California counties develop a suicide prevention strategic plan, with an emphasis on adolescents. SB 331, which gained bipartisan support in the Legislature while receiving no opposition and included no additional cost to California counties, provided a proactive community solution.

Unfortunately, the bill was held by the Assembly Appropriations Committee — denying families additional preventative actions to help address the mental health needs of California’s teenagers and help prevent suicide among our youth.

Today, in California, almost 20 percent of high school students say they seriously considered attempting suicide, with almost one-half of LGBTQ students reporting suicidal ideation — more than three times the estimate for their straight peers. Furthermore, suicide rates among teenage girls have hit a 40-year high.

On a local level, since 2010, Kern County has experienced a surge in suicide rates — leading California as one of the top counties when it comes to deaths by suicide per 100,000 population. According to the California Department of Public Health, from 2010 to 2017, Kern County has seen a consistent rise in deaths by suicide from 10.7 percent per 100,000 population to 14.1 percent per 100,000 population.

Studies have shown that several factors put teens at risk for suicide, including a family history of mental illness, substance abuse, exposure to suicidal behavior and incarceration, with suicidal ideation being more common among females, people of color and LGBTQ youth.

So how do we holistically address this epidemic?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the economic and human cost of suicidal behavior to individuals, families, communities and society makes suicide a serious public health problem around the world. In the past, suicide was addressed by providing mental health services to people who were already experiencing or showing signs of suicidal thoughts or behavior. With the increase in suicide rate around the nation, we need to do more — we need a public health approach.

This month, as we take a moment to remember those who we’ve lost, I encourage families and friends throughout the southern Central Valley to take a stand to protect our children. Despite the road block we faced this legislative year on SB 331, the decision by the committee was simply a reflection of how much more work needs to be done. As a result, we may feel confined to this year’s legislative outcome, but just like the city of Sanger, we will continue to rise.

Click here for a published version of the Op Ed.