Youth suicide on the rise in York County

Alyssa Pressler, 505-5438/@AlyssaPressYD
  • Nine York County teens have committed suicide in 2016.
  • According to the York County coroner, this is the most youth suicides the county has ever seen.
  • The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a free phone call away at 1-800-273-8255.

The number of teen suicides has risen drastically in York County this year, and parents, health professionals and educators say they are concerned about — and addressing — the alarming trend.

There have been 10 youth suicides in York County, one of whom was not a resident but died at York Hospital, officials say.

Because of this spike, Cindy Richard, the director of the York County Suicide Prevention Coalition, started a  support group in September for family members who have been affected by a youth suicide. Richard said that it is typically parents and grandparents who attend, but it's open to all family members. 

There are two other support groups that are  part of the York County Suicide Prevention Coalition, but they are both geared toward survivors of suicide attempts. Richard found that parents of children who completed suicide often gravitated toward each other, inspiring her to create a group for them as well. 

Billy Sechrist, of York City, holds a photo collage of his daughter, Shania, at his home Friday, May 27, 2016. Shania Sechrist, who was 15 and a student at William Penn Senior High School, took her own life after she came home from school Wednesday. Amanda J. Cain photo

"It is sad when a child takes his or her life," Richard said. "It is the ultimate sadness."

Seeking support: Richard's support group meets on the second Tuesday of every month over dinner at Hoss's Restaurant at 3604 E. Market St. The group is peer-led and free for those who want to attend, but those who are there must purchase dinner. The group spends time talking about the difficulties of coping with daily life after losing a child, such as maintaining contact with old friends or going to the grocery store.

Richard explained that parents who lose a child to suicide have needs that are different from survivors. Parents lose the memories they have of the child being happy and healthy, and they lose the experience of milestones such as graduation, their first day at college or on the job and their wedding. Richard said that parents typically experience a lot of blame and ask what they could have done differently. 

"When you think about raising a child and giving birth to a child, they’re part of you, and you’ve lost that to suicide," Richard explained. "Plus the thought that they took their own life themselves is a huge part."

Pam Gay, York County coroner, wrote  an opinion piece for The York Dispatch in July saying it is difficult to narrow down exactly why more youth than ever are taking their lives. But her conversations with families have led her to see some common trends, she said. For example, a number of teens are subjected to bullying and cyberbullying, which could be a factor in the increasing numbers. 

"A parent can shower their teen with all the affection and positive acclamation in the world, but the negativity, bullying and sheer meanness some face in their school environment often far outweighs the positive reinforcement they receive at home," Gay wrote. 

OPED: A 'culture of caring' for hurting teens

Shania Sechrist took her life in May at 15 years old. The York City student hanged herself after school with a note left for her parents saying that she loved her family, but she couldn't bear the pain of being bullied anymore. 

"'I tried telling you something bad would happen, but no one listened,'" Shania's father Billy Sechrist said, crying as he read from her suicide note.

In addition to bullying, Gay said, a romantic breakup, legal troubles or problems at home can contribute to a suicide. Unless the teen leaves a note, Gay and the teen's parents can only speculate as to what might have caused them to take their lives.

In 2014, there were three youth suicides in York County, Gay said, while in 2015 there were none. Gay said this year has the highest number of youth suicides that the county has ever seen. The suicides began in January of this year, and the most recent was in October. 

Suicide and education: Gay works closely with local school districts to help them deal with a student suicide. With parental permission, Gay's office contacts school administrators so they can have support systems in place with students quickly. 

However, not all parents choose to let the school district know the nature of the death. Gay said her office respects the parents' decision but doesn't recommend this approach because rumors will begin on social media, and the district will need to deal with those rumors without knowing the truth. 

York Suburban Superintendent Shelly Merkle said the district has put support services in place for students after a suicide by a student in a neighboring district or by an alumnus. Merkle explained the district has a school safety plan it follows for all types of student deaths, but  student suicides are unique because they could lead to depression or copycat suicides. 

Merkle said the school acknowledges each student death with students and faculty through an announcement given by teachers or guidance counselors in the classroom. How exactly students are notified depends on the age and circumstance of the death. The district works closely with counselors and psychologists to prepare their statement to students. 

With a student death, Merkle also said it's sometimes helpful to do an activity with the students that will help bring closure, such as making cards for the family or holding a dedication for a yearbook.

Merkle said the district is careful to work with the family mourning to ensure the school is sensitive to their needs.

"We want to honor their wishes, we want to support them, and we want to support students in a way that honors and respects them," Merkle said.

Prevention and support: Gay explained it can be difficult to tell if someone is suicidal or depressed. Students and faculty should get to know the youth in their classrooms to more easily see warning signs. 

"They might just ordinarily be quiet or shy, so you wouldn’t know when they’re having thoughts of depression and suicide," Gay said. "It’s not always easy, which is why it’s important to get to know each other and talk to each other." 

Gay said that anyone who is acting withdrawn, talking about giving things of value away, talking about how they can't go on, is more irritable than normal or who has a history of suicide in their family might be at risk. If anyone is talking or joking about having a suicide plan, Gay said that is the time to immediately get involved and reach out to a professional.

Since 2014, changes have come to York County to prevent suicide among teens. Act 71 was signed into law in 2014, which requires school districts to have suicide-prevention training in schools. This went into effect for the 2015-16 school year. Merkle said that students in York Suburban receive this training in their health classes and after student deaths in the district. After a suicide, the district will reach out to students suspected of being suicidal to check in on them, but it  will  extend support to all students. 

Several districts in the area have also started Aevidum Clubs, which is a program that started out of Cocalico High School in Lancaster County after a student  suicide. Students who join the club host suicide-awareness activities, create empowerment literature for other students  and host initiatives to help all students feel safe and cared for. 

Currently there are Aevidum Clubs in Dover, Red Lion Area, South Eastern, Southern, South Western, Hanover, Central York and Dallastown Area school districts. Gay said students who don't fit in with another club or who often feel left out can find refuge in Aevidum Clubs.

Merkle said that if a student is suicidal or if a parent or another student believes their child or classmate is suicidal, one of the biggest steps they can take is to reach out to professionals for help.

"Reach out. If it doesn't work when you reach out, reach out again," Merkle said. "There is someone in that student’s life that cares deeply about them, and at times,  mental health circumstances prevent them from realizing that and accepting that." 

If you are suicidal or experiencing suicidal thoughts, please consider reaching out to any of the following resources:

  • WellSpan Health suicide hotline at (717) 851-5320 or (800) 673-2496
  • TrueNorth Wellness Services is affiliated with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and has multiple locations throughout York County, including Hanover and Shrewsbury. The service can be reached immediately for help at (866) 325-0339
  • The York County Suicide Prevention Coalition at (717) 227-0048
  • The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255