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Sudden increase in teen suicides in Jackson County causes concern

Youth suicide is a special concern right now in Jackson County.

Not so long ago, years might pass between teen suicides, and more than one in any given year was rare. The last two years have been different — five teens took their own lives in 2008, and there have been four more so far in 2009, including three middle-schoolers.

"We don't know if this is a trend or just an anomaly," said Gretchen Ericson, Jackson County's youth suicide prevention coordinator. She trains teachers and teens to recognize when someone might be contemplating suicide and how to respond.

There were just eight suicides under age 20 in Jackson County for the entire decade of the 1990s, and 10 for the seven years from 2000 to 2006, so the recent upswing turned heads. Ericson said it's hard to say what the past two years mean because there are so many factors involved in suicide.

"It might be we're seeing an increase in stressors across the board," she said. "Things like more stress in families, more unemployment."

Oregon public health officials interview teens who go to a hospital for help after attempting suicide or after talking about suicide to try to understand their reasons. Annual reports are available through the Adolescent Suicide Attempt Data System. Among the 681 attempted suicides that were analyzed for 2007, family conflicts or the lack of a cohesive family were among the most common factors those teens reported.

"One of the strongest preventive factors (against suicide) is to have strong connections with family or the community," she said.

Other significant factors in the report included the breakup of a teen relationship, problems in school or trouble with the legal system.

The data indicated girls accounted for nearly three-fourths of all youth suicide attempts. One 5-year-old child's attempt was reported, although the majority of attempts occurred among teens 15 and older.

The most commonly used means of suicide attempt was pharmaceutical drugs. Most attempts occurred in the youth's own home, and about a third of the youths had told someone else about their plans.

Ericson said "contagion" — knowing someone who has chosen or attempted suicide — increases the risk, too.

"If they lose a friend to suicide, that increases their risk of acting on this," she said.

"When you lose someone to suicide, you're eight times more likely to die by suicide yourself," she said. She noted that two of the middle-schoolers who took their own lives this year were close friends.

Ericson's work is funded with federal money from the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act, approved by Congress in 2003 after then-Sen. Gordon Smith's son took his own life.

"We're training teens to know what to do," she said. "Teens talk to teens about their problems."

Reach reporter Bill Kettler at 776-4492 or e-mail bkettler@mailtribune.com.