Jim Smith was 6 years old when he walked into his grandfather’s house just seconds after his grandpa had put a shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger.
Now 74, Smith, a retired auto industry finance manager, says he’s never forgotten that day.
His family never talked about it, he said.
“We don’t want to talk about someone in the family being unstable. People think if you don’t talk about it, it didn’t happen,” Smith said. “I think the biggest issue is just not talking about it. We need to talk about this and remove the stigma. Mental health problems know no boundaries — not race, creed or class.”
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Smith was one of the respondents to a recent online survey about teen suicide conducted by The Star. Many aspects in Smith’s story parallels the findings in the unscientific survey launched Oct. 6, asking such questions as “How have you been affected by teen suicide?” And: “If you know someone who’s committed suicide, how did it happen?”
Just over 100 people responded to the 16-question survey. Of those who knew someone who has committed suicide, the top answers to where did it happen and how did it happen were: at home, with a gun.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death for Kansas City-area young people between the ages of 10 and 24, reflecting a national trend.
In Kansas, suicide was the second leading cause of death for the 15-24 age group in 2014. In 2015, the Missouri Institute of Mental Health said suicide was the second leading cause of death among that same group in 2013, when 310 Missouri youth died by unintentional injury, and another 118 died by suicide.
On Sept. 29, 17-year-old Gemesha Thomas shot herself in a bathroom at Lee’s Summit North High School and later died at a hospital. At a memorial for the high-schooler, her mother LaToya Thomas said Gemesha had struggled with depression.
Most who took the survey were adults who said their child, or a relative, or a student they knew had either killed themselves or tried to. Most said that the person who had killed themselves was between the age of 14 and 20.
“Actually known several between ages of 12-24 due to my own children being in that age group,” said one middle-aged woman. She added that her experience with suicides led her to seek counseling, and to seek help from family, friends, support groups, and at emergency inpatient facilities.
The Star survey also asked respondents what led the person they knew to commit or attempt suicide. (If you need help, contact the National Suicide Prevention hotline is open 24/7: 1-800-273-8255.)
Most of the responses came from white females ranging in ages from 18 and younger (The Star asked younger respondents to ask for permission to reply) to 56 and older.
Depression (45.5 percent) or family issues (20.5 percent) were the main reasons most gave for why someone committed or attempted suicide.
Forty-nine responders, or 47.1 percent, said they knew someone who’d used a gun to commit suicide. Another 45.2 percent said suffocation was involved. Eighteen or 17.3 percent said poisoning contributed to the death or attempt. (Respondents were allowed to check all answers that applied.)
Survey results showed suicides and attempts occurred in a variety of places, from in a person’s car to an open field or on a bridge, but most (53 percent) said it happened at home.
Most of those who responded live in Johnson County, in either Olathe or Overland Park, or in Lee’s Summit, which is in Jackson County.
Perhaps many in Olathe recall the 2015 suicide deaths of two teen-aged girls. Ciara (CiCi) Marie Webb, 16, committed suicide in her Olathe home and days later, her friend and Olathe Northwest High School soccer teammate, Cady Housh, stepped in front of a train.
While those cases and Gemesha’s suicide in Lee’s Summit were public and led police to share some details of the incidents, often, experts say, little is ever said publicly about how a person took their life or why because of stigma.
Indeed, among survey respondents who said they themselves had thought about or attempted suicide, most — more than 60 percent — said they have never told anyone about it.
One white male between 19 to 25 admitted to having tried to kill himself at home because he was depressed. He said he did talk about it with someone “because I wanted to share my feelings.”
A white female in the same age range said she knew friends or family members who had attempted suicide. She also said she has attempted suicide and has not talk about it with anyone because she “didn’t want them to overreact and say the wrong thing.”
Another woman in the same age range said she had attempted suicide because she was depressed and told friends about it because “I have faith that happiness is possible.”
Of the survey takers who said they talked with someone about suicide, 71.6 percent said most often, that person was a friend. Nearly 62 percent of respondents said they sought counseling and 60.5 percent said they turned to family for support.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 5,900 kids and adults aged 10 to 24 died by suicide in 2015, the most recent numbers available. And nationally, more boys die than girls. But the rate of increase in suicides among girls and young women in recent years outpaces the rate of increase for boys.
From 2007 to 2015, suicide rates for teenage boys and young men increased by more than 30 percent and doubled among girls.
CDC analysis found that the rate of suicide among teenage girls hit a 40-year high in 2015.
For help, contact the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.