Your Turn: We are failing our young people on a crucial level

One person committing suicide is too many. That’s been a given as our behavioral health collaborative partners have begun working on strategies to reduce Douglas County’s suicide rate as part of our current Community Health Plan.

Sadly, our age-adjusted suicide rate of 15.4 deaths per 100,000 people is higher than the national rate of 13.3.

And looking deeper, some of the statistics we see are particularly heart breaking.

In 2018, of the 345 known suicide attempts in Douglas County, 193 — or 55% — occurred among youth ages 13 to 24, and we had eight attempts among children ages 10 to 12. That last one, personally, is difficult to fathom, and it makes my heart go out to the families of those children.

Also in 2018, eight kids 9 or younger and 167 children ages 10 to 18 reported having suicidal thoughts.

As we have worked to connect the dots further to address potential root causes of suicide, we’ve found some interesting connections. Data from the 2018 Kansas Communities that Care Student Survey show us that in Kansas students who reported using traditional tobacco products, e-cigarettes or vaping are at an increased risk of behavioral health problems.

Among those who reported vaping:

• 32% said they contemplated suicide within the past year, but among nontobacco users the rate was 16%. That means they are twice as likely to consider suicide.

• 42% reported experiencing depression compared with 27% of students who don’t use e-cigarettes.

• 37% used marijuana within the last month — or were 12 times more likely to do so because the rate was only 3% among nonvape users, and;

• 65% of students who vape reported drinking alcohol in the past month versus 11% of nontobacco using students.

What struck me is that these are behaviors we often just want to dismiss as typical teen behaviors, but we now find there are dangerous things that go with those behaviors and things underneath that which we should care about addressing.

With the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department’s role and responsibility as the chief health strategist in our community, this tells me we are failing our kids on a crucial level.

As we work with our community partners to make progress on improving behavioral health conditions for all in Douglas County, I am proud of the progress we continue to make, including the county leadership’s support for the Zero Suicide Initiative, which aims to reduce suicide risk and intervene more effectively within health care agencies.

As we seek to address some of those risky behaviors, like vaping and tobacco use among teens in Douglas County, a big part of turning this tide involves education and beginning a conversation.

There is a huge opportunity for parents, educators and mentors to begin learning about this issue this month.

The Health Department is glad to partner with Lawrence Public Schools, The Boys and Girls Club of Lawrence, the University of Kansas Cancer Center and LiveWell Douglas County for a community forum, Vaping Among Youth in Douglas County: What You Need to Know, 5:30-7 p.m., Monday, June 17, at the Lawrence Public Library, 707 Vermont St.

The forum will include health information from Dr. Matthias Salathe, chair of the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of Kansas Medical Center and one of the nation’s leading researchers in pulmonology. He has studied the negative health effects of vaping. During the event, Lawrence Public Schools leaders and students will also talk about the scale and scope of the problem in middle schools and high schools.

Lastly, the forum will include a discussion about what we can do to begin working on a solution.

As we work with all our community partners in all areas of the Community Health Plan, we are constantly reminded that we can be “healthier together.” To me, this idea is particularly apt as we work to address suicide among youth.

I hope it continues to drive us all to reduce the number of times family members and friends experience the devastation that suicide or a suicide attempt leaves in its wake.

— Dan Partridge is the director of the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department.

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