Newberg beginning to talk seriously about suicide
(Editor's note: This is the second in a long-term series of stories)
As many in Newberg have discovered firsthand in recent years, over the course of the past several dreary months of winter, or even in the past two and a half weeks, suicide has become an issue in the community.
The pain for all involved can be overwhelming and the stigma surrounding both mental illness in general and suicide in particular can make it difficult to talk about even in safe and private settings, let alone in a public forum or as part of a community-wide discourse about public health.
But recent events are forcing people and organizations across the area to acknowledge that not only is there is a problem but that open, honest and responsible conversations need to take place at all levels in order to coordinate a collaborative and effective response.
The issue has been raised publicly several times in the past six months, including when the Newberg School District rallied community partners in an effort to keep its students connected over winter break after a student committed suicide while separated from friends and teachers over Thanksgiving break.
It was the third suicide connected to the school in the preceding six months and the response from various government agencies, mental health and medical organizations, community groups and churches to deal with the death was swift.
It also the sparked efforts in and outside of the district to help build some more systematic ways to support students dealing with mental health problems and some of those efforts were starting to bear fruit, but that work is also slow to progress.
That made it especially disheartening when three Newberg principals reported to parents, through an email sent out recently, that the district had received reports that several area teens had made suicide attempts in a two-week span.
The administrators urged parents to have discussions with their kids and informed them that the Netflix series "13 Reasons Why," which depicts a high school student who commits suicide, was contributing to an already difficult climate and was a popular topic of discussion among students.
For numerous reasons, it can be difficult for anyone, even law enforcement, mental health organizations and government agencies, to keep track of suicide, especially suicide attempts.
The taboo nature of the subject in American culture and the fact that most suicides don't get reported by news organizations (which is quite intentional) means many suicides go unnoticed by the public. So if a community does have a suicide problem, it may not even be aware of it.
For instance, in span of two days April 24-25, three young people with ties to Newberg were found dead and in all three cases, early evidence indicates that all three were suicides.
That includes 21-year-old George Fox student Daniel Mellers, who was reported missing April 22 but is believed to have committed suicide after being found dead by police on the evening of April 24.
According to Yamhill County Sheriff's Office captain Chris Ray, two men under the age of 25 were also found dead April 25 and preliminary indications also point to suicide.
It is unclear if those three deaths, or the record of suicides in Newberg reaching back further, represent a significant increase or high suicide rate, but many in the community have taken notice and want to take a role in addressing it as a public health issue.
"I think alarm bells are ringing," said Aaron Rauch, who serves as spiritual growth pastor at Red Hills Church and is active in youth ministry in Newberg. "The conversation is a hot topic, which makes me nervous because exposure to the topic is a good idea, but attention to it makes vulnerable people feel or see it as more of an option and not just a healthy conversation. I don't know where the chicken and the egg are in that situation, but hopefully we're going in the right direction and talking about it in healthy ways."
According to suicide prevention specialists, it is key to connect people who may be exhibiting warning signs of suicide with medical or mental health professionals.
Warning signs can include: talking about wanting to die; looking for a way to kill oneself; talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose; talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain; talking about being a burden to others; increasing the use of alcohol or drugs; acting anxious, agitated or recklessly; sleeping too little or too much; withdrawing or feeling isolated; showing rage or talking about seeking revenge; and displaying extreme mood swings.
It is important to note that warning signs are associated with suicide but may not be what causes a suicide.
Yamhill County Mental Health also operates a crisis line between 8:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, though the county does contract with Lines for Life to handle calls outside those periods.
Local mental health clinics include the Providence Newberg Medical Group Behavioral Health Clinic (503-537-5900) and the George Fox University Behavioral Health Clinic (503-554-2368).
The Yamhill chapter of the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) is also a great resource and hosts numerous support groups. They can be reached at 503-434-6350.