The number of suicides committed by Kansas teen-agers and young adults has risen dramatically in the past decade, making suicide the second-leading cause of death in the state for 15- to-24-year-olds, according to a recent report.
The Kansas Department of Health and Environment report showed a 32 percent increase from 1989 to 1998, the most recent year for which statistics were available. In 1989, 47 people in that age range committed suicide, and in 1998, that number increased to 62.
Compiled by the state Center for Health and Environmental Statistics, the report was the first of its kind.
"The center often focuses on various trends," said Mike Heideman, KDHE spokesman, last month. "One of the reasons to publicize the reports is to call attention to trends so others can do research and work on solutions."
The suicide increase for people from 15 to 24 topped the list of age groups, ranking well above the second-highest group, those in the 35 to 44 age range, which increased 23 percent.
In 1998, the leading cause of death for 15- to 24-year-olds was unintentional injuries, which made up 47 percent of total deaths within that age group. Suicides were next at 18 percent of the total.
"We think this is an important first step," Heideman said. "Now, researchers can draw conclusions and look for ways to reverse the trend."
Kansas suicide rates are increasing as rates nationally are decreasing, according to the report. Kansas' rate increased by 2.6 percent from 1997 to 1998, while the United States' rate dropped 1.9 percent.
But Marcia Epstein, director of Headquarters Counseling Center, 1419 Mass., said she interpreted the numbers a little differently. Because suicide numbers don't show a steady incline, she attributed the increase to other factors.
"It's not a straight line upward," she said. "It's a bumpy line. When I look at the ... report, I see fluctuations, not a general increase. Nationally, the numbers are low enough that there hasn't been a lot of research done on suicide, but from my perspective I don't see that it has any real tendency to go up or down."
Epstein also counted Kansas' relatively low population as a factor behind an apparent increase in suicide rates. But no matter how many people commit suicide, she said, it's always too many.
"No matter if it's a lot or a little, whenever someone dies, it's a tragedy," Epstein said. "We want to see people try to get help. When the death is someone you love, it doesn't really matter whether there were more or less deaths than usual that year. What matters is that someone you loved was in a lot of pain and is now dead, and that death seems like it could have been prevented."
A national suicide hot line, with counselors available in Lawrence, is now accessible in Kansas. The number is (800) SUICIDE. For those in Lawrence, however, Epstein said they could call Headquarters directly at 841-2345.
"We're always concerned that the population at large doesn't know about some of the resources there are available," said Chad Reasoner, information specialist and counselor at Headquarters. "Because, I think that nine out of 10 times, or even more, people don't really want to do it. Even though it's a clichvery often it's a cry for help. People just need a little attention and help."
Reasoner couldn't explain the increase noted among young people but said that some of the problem could be alleviated by simple solutions.
"A lot of time it just comes down to communication," Reasoner said.
"A lot of times, kids don't feel comfortable talking to their parents or a counselor. Suicide is a choice you have to make, and we try to tell people that things may be getting pretty bad, but is it really that bad? We just try to get a conversation going."