Samantha Neaman remembers her son as an outgoing, high-achieving student.
“I had no reason to worry about him,” she said.
But on Feb. 10, 2007, Kyle Koslop, 13, took his own life.
“He suffered in silence,” Neaman said Friday. “For many of us, we don’t identify that it can happen in our own families.”
Neaman is founder and program coordinator of Help Stop The Silence, a suicide prevention and support program based out of the Catholic Social Services Greater Hazleton office.
And she is glad to see that officials in Harrisburg are taking a major step toward increasing and coordinating similar efforts at the state level.
Members of Gov. Tom Wolf’s health agencies, including the departments of Human Services and Health, last week held the first meeting of Pennsylvania’s Suicide Prevention Task Force and announced receipt of a $3.68 million federal grant for youth suicide prevention.
The meeting brought together representatives from more than ten state agencies, including Human Services Secretary Teresa Miller; Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine; legislative co-chair, Rep. Mike Schlossberg; and members of the General Assembly and Prevent Suicide PA.
“I think this has been a long time coming,” said Govan Martin, chairman and executive director of Harrisburg-based Prevent Suicide PA.
A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report released last year showed that suicide rates rose in all states except Nevada from 1999 to 2016. In Pennsylvania, the increase was 34.3 percent over that period, according to the report.
The report cited many factors contributing to suicide among those with and without mental health conditions, including relationship problems, problematic substance use, a crisis, criminal and legal problems, health issues, housing loss and employment or financial struggles.
Martin is hopeful that the new state task force’s efforts will not only help reduce the number of suicides, but help raise awareness of risk factors, of the links between suicide and mental health, and end the stigma that surrounds the issue.
“Suicide nationally is the 10th leading cause of death, and homicide is ranked 16th, but homicides get all the press,” said Martin, a retired state trooper who lost his brother to suicide 39 years ago, when both were teens.
Statistics in focus
Even record-keeping can be slow to catch-up.
In 2017, the last year for which complete statewide statistics are available, 2,030 people ended their lives through suicide in Pennsylvania, Martin said.
Here’s what we do know: 78% of suicides in this state are males and 22% are females, he added. Females attempt suicide four times more than men, Martin explained, but usually survive because they tend to choose less lethal means.
Luzerne County officials had cautiously expressed optimism in 2016 when they learned the number of suicides here had dipped below 50, which had not occurred since 2009.
In 2017 the number rose to 64, and Times Leader reporting showed that there were more than 50 suicides in 2018. More than 40 of the individuals were males, and of them more than half involved self-inflicted gunshot wounds.
What don’t we know in Pennsylvania?
How many people attempt suicide and survive — by taking pills that do not require a hospital trip, for example — or which professions have the highest suicide rates in our state, Martin said.
Anecdotally, construction workers are believed to have the highest rate in the U.S., Martin said, but Pennsylvania is not one of the 17 states that track suicides by profession.
“We need to do better, and I think the governor recognized that,” he said.
Task force: Youth awareness
Wolf touched on that last week as the task force began its work.
“Working together to prevent suicide is of paramount importance to all Pennsylvanians,” the governor said. “By convening the Suicide Prevention Task Force today and on a regular basis, we are gathering the right people and organizations to listen, collect information and take action toward making a real difference in reducing incidents of suicide.”
The group discussed the state of suicide prevention efforts around the commonwealth, the data needs to better inform prevention efforts, and opportunities for public engagement as the task force works to develop a comprehensive suicide prevention plan that represents Pennsylvania’s diverse communities and the common and unique challenges faced.
During the meeting, Miller announced a federal grant totaling $3.68 million over five years that will support efforts to prevent suicide among Pennsylvania’s youth.
As a pediatrician and adolescent medicine specialist, Levine has seen the effect that mental health issues and thoughts of suicide can have on a young person’s health.
“It is essential that we engage with the public to increase prevention and treatment efforts across Pennsylvania to help address the public health issue of suicide,” Levine said.
The 2017 Pennsylvania Youth Survey revealed that 16.5 percent of Pennsylvania middle and high school students had seriously considered suicide, and 9.7 percent attempted suicide one or more times within the past 12 months. The grant aims to empower communities throughout the commonwealth to implement a multi-component approach to identify, assess, and treat youth at risk of suicide.
The grant, “The PA Resource for Continuity of Care in Youth-Serving Systems and Transitions,” was awarded by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to support youth suicide prevention efforts in K-12 schools, colleges, and health care settings around Pennsylvania.
The funding will support increasing capacity and growing the work of existing suicide prevention efforts lead by DHS’ Office of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, including expanding the Suicide Prevention Online Learning Center, working with staff in schools, colleges, and primary care settings to identify risk of suicide, and engaging behavioral health providers trained in suicide-risk management and families to help screen and assess risk of suicide and ensure youth needing support are properly connected to treatment resources.
Risk across generations
Suicide is, however, a problem that affects all ages, Martin added.
“A point that often gets missed is that the 45-64 age bracket are the leading ages for those who die by suicide, not only in Pennsylvania but the country as well,” he said, adding that youth ages 10-24 have the lowest deaths by suicide in this state and in the country.
“All of us are shocked by youth suicide but we must focus on all ages, as it is shocking to their family and friends when they lose someone to suicide as well,” he said.
Martin also pointed out that in many parts of the state there is a strong network of county and local resources around the state for survivors and prevention, including groups such as Neaman’s, as well as the Scranton-based Northeast Suicide Prevention Initiative.
President Kathy Wallace also expressed optimism in what the task force can accomplish. She said Pennsylvania needs to be better at cross-training people in different professions — medical and education, for example — about suicide warning signs and how to help people get the help they need.
“People often don’t ask for help, especially men,” Wallace said. “We need people to understand that there is no liability for asking people if they’re alright.”
Where to turn
• If you are in crisis now, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
• Crisis text line: 741741
• Prevent Suicide PA: www.PreventSuicidePA.org
• Help Stop the Silence Suicide Prevention and Support: www.helpstopthesilence.org
• Northeast Suicide Prevention Initiative: www.northeastsuicidepreventioninitiative.org
The suicide awareness ribbons seen here offer numbers where people who may be considering taking their lives can call for assistance.