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Article on Tampa Suicide by David Shern

Forging Response To Teen  Suicides


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.