Article on Tampa Suicide by David Shern
Forging Response To Teen Suicides
By DAVID SHERN
Published: Jan 4, 2006
The Tampa Bay community has been deeply affected by the apparent suicide of James Dungy, son of Tony Dungy, former coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Hopefully this public tragedy will mobilize efforts to develop a stronger community response to similar situations.
In 2000, suicide was the third leading cause of death among 10- to 19-year-olds in the United States. In 2002, researchers found that one in five teenagers in the United States seriously considers suicide. The surgeon general has identified suicide and the mental illness that almost always accompanies it in adolescents as a critical public health problem – as serious as cancer, heart disease or diabetes.
Following the surgeon general’s lead, most states have developed suicide prevention strategies. Florida’s well-developed strategy is being overseen by a governor’s task force. Clearly we have made great progress in realizing the importance of the problem and in developing strategies to address it. Yet to be accomplished is the passage of a bill creating an Office of Suicide Prevention in the governor’s office.
Public education, early identification of problems and accessible services are all keys to a public health response. Mental illnesses and addictive disorders remain poorly understood. Many still believe that they are not real medical conditions. The evidence is overwhelming that these illnesses are real, biologically mediated disorders for which we have a wide array of effective treatments.
Misinformation about mental and addictive disorders makes it difficult for individuals to identify problems in themselves or in their family as conditions that can be treated. Individuals who are ashamed of their problems are unlikely to seek help for them. Education therefore is essential to reduce the stigma that is still inappropriately associated with mental and addictive illnesses.
Early identification of problems while they are less severe and life-threatening is an essential part of the strategy to reduce suicide. School-based screening for mental health and substance abuse problems should be as common as screening for hearing and vision problems. If mental health problems were not stigmatized and misunderstood, the resistance to school-based screening would be greatly diminished.
Suicide education programs in schools can help to assure that friends who know about suicide plans are mobilized to act. Bullying-prevention programs and the creation of safe school environments also reduce isolation, fear and depression among teens. Physicians, nurses and other health care providers should be given the time and the tools to screen their patients for these problems, since they are the most likely to encounter individuals who are having difficulty. Clergy and other natural helpers should be supported in their efforts. Recognizing problems is key to action.
Finally, once problems are identified, services must be accessible and effective. Discriminatoy insurance coverage for mental illnesses and addiction disorders continues to frustrate access to care. While emergency care is available for individuals, regardless of their ability to pay, the link between crisis services and ongoing treatment is weak, and often persons seen in crisis do not receive follow-up care.
Interestingly, public health officials actively reach out to individuals who are identified as having various types of infectious disorders in order to be certain that they are receiving care. Perhaps we should have a similar strategy for individuals who attempt suicide – to be certain that they find an effective remedy for their problems. A system that responds passively to individuals with these life-threatening conditions is not adequate.
Likely nothing will reduce the agony that the Dungy family will endure following James’ death. If we can reflect upon it to forge an adequate community response to suicide, their tragedy may spell hope for the many other families confronting similar problems.