Six children took their own lives last year in Kern County.
One was found surrounded by prescription drugs and painkillers. Many visited church the same day. Some left notes. Others didn’t. The youngest was 11 – too young to even be called a teenager.
All of those deaths were preventable.
And yet the number of suicides among kids continues to rise in Kern County. The figure is up 33 percent over 2015, when four teenagers died by suicide. In 2012, that figure was zero.
Three kids under the age of 14 died by suicide last year, something Kern County Network for Children Executive Director Tom Corson described as “disturbing.”
“That’s just young,” Corson said.
The findings were part of a report published Tuesday by the Kern County Child Death Review Team, which investigates childhood fatalities to determine whether they were caused by neglect or abuse.
They investigated 42 deaths, six of which were suicides. Almost half those deaths – 19 – were deemed accidental, 10 were undetermined, three were of natural causes, and three were murdered, according to the report.
Children’s advocates are unsure what has led to the sudden spike in suicides – especially among kids under 14. Fourteen children have died by suicide since 2013, said Russell Hasting, a supervising public health nurse who chairs the CDRT.
During a presentation to the Kern County Board of Supervisors, Hasting pushed for greater collaboration between social services and schools, more availability of mental health first aid trainings to provide necessary skills to adults who work with children and more earnest communication between parents and kids who might be exhibiting suicidal tendencies.
“Lots of parents feel uncomfortable broaching the subject with their children, but we’ve got to give them the skills and strategies to have those conversations,” Hasting said.
The days of keeping suicide quiet have to be over, Corson said.
“I’m done with the whole ‘suicide prevention month’,” Corson said. “The suicide stuff we’ve got to get in front of. That whole idea that if we talk about suicide, it will increase it is a myth. We just need to talk about it.”
Corson has personally intervened in three attempted suicides in the last two years, including two at the Dream Center, a foster youth social services resource center that Corson heads.
During one of those attempts, a teenager who had just left the center walked across the street to the top level of a city parking garage and threatened to throw himself off.
“The craziest thing about it is these kids were depressed prior, and even though all these staff members were here, nobody bothered to ask the question: 'Are you suicidal?'” Corson said.
Now it’s the first question out of Corson’s mouth when kids tell him they’re depressed or exhibit any sign of hurting themselves.
When kids used to persistently bring up the option of suicide years ago, Corson said, they were sometimes dismissed as making bids for attention.
“You can’t dismiss it as being dramatic,” Corson said. “Obviously, there’s something there.”
So children’s advocates organized through the Kern County Superintendent of Schools office are going to non-traditional sources, like school teachers, coaches and faith leaders, to train them how to help a child who may be confronting suicidal thoughts, Corson said.
It’s one of the reasons why programs that foster social and emotional relationships between schoolteachers and kids are so important.
“You have to have a relationship where a kid is able to divulge they’re feeling that way and listen to it in order to help,” Corson said.