JOHNSON COUNTY, Kan. — Johnson County has seen a 33% decrease in teen suicides, bucking a national trend in 2020 that saw suicide as the second-leading cause of death for those between 10 and 34 years old.
Health experts said that’s due, in part, to a teen-led effort called Zero Reasons Why (ZRW).
Molly Heidrick, a junior at Blue Valley Southwest High School, is a member of the group and knows first-hand what it’s like to lose someone to suicide.
"When I was in middle school I had a classmate of mine who passed away by suicide," she said.
That experience led her to join ZRW. She and other young adults from schools throughout Johnson County share their own struggles to help break the stigma surrounding mental health, whether it's opening up about losing a friend or loved one, sharing their own experiences with depression or anxiety or simply offering support.
"I like to tell people that there is somebody out there who is going through exactly what you are going through right now," Heidrick said.
Although previously the group held in-person events, the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed much of their outreach online, reaching teens on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
"The impact of your life on the people around you is bigger than you could ever imagine,” a man named Will said in one of the group’s promotion videos, “and it's so important to reach out for help and to know that you matter.”
It’s a simple, but effective, approach that has an impact, according to Rennie McKinney, the Johnson County Suicide Prevention Coalition's 2020 chairperson.
"When you actually hear somebody that maybe you look up to in your school who is also suffering from depression, or the person that sits across the classroom (during non-pandemic times) that is struggling, and you realize, 'Well, they have anxiety or they’ve struggled with difficulty sleeping,' it makes it easier to then reach out," McKinney said.
Adding to that, mental health has also become a focal point in schools. Olathe Public Schools, for example, offers suicide prevention through its curriculum, as well as mental health support.
"We have school counselors and social workers and school psychologists at every level," said Angie Salava, Olathe Public Schools' director of social/emotional learning and mental health services.
And, when students can't be in the building, she said the district has found ways to bring those services to them.
"We make a lot of calls home and schedule a lot of Zoom meetings,” she said. “All of our providers have been providing support through telehealth. And, home visits have been made within our district."
However, some health leaders said that while the pandemic has led to isolation for some teens, there have been some positives – From more parental supervision with children at home to less academic pressure with many students seeing a decrease in workloads during at-home or hybrid learning.
"We do know that the symptoms that we tend to see in studies of depression for young people tend to decrease in the summer, and many people feel like maybe that’s because school is stressful for kids," Shayla Sullivant, a child and adolescent psychiatrist with Children's Mercy Hospital, said.
Health experts also said this is a reminder for students – whether learning from home or in person – it's important to acknowledge the stress or feelings they're experiencing.
Studies have shown asking your child if they are thinking of harming themselves will not encourage them to act on those thoughts or put those thoughts in their head.
"A teen who is already thinking about suicide will feel some comfort if you talk to them and actually have a dialogue around suicide and what it would it look like if you took your life," McKinney said.
Parents who are concerned about their teen struggling can suicide proof their home. Medications should be stored and not easily accessible. Firearms also should be locked away. Johnson County provides free gun locks to secure firearms.
While Wyandotte County does not yet have the latest teen suicide numbers for 2020, health leaders said numbers decreased from 2018 to 2019. For 15 to 24 year olds, Wyandotte County saw 33.3 suicides per 100,000 in 2018. That number fell to 18.8 per 100,000 in 2019. For those under 15, that number was at 2.6 per 100,000 in both 2018 and 2019.
Jackson County health leaders said those statistics were not readily available.