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The Democrat-Herald and the Gazette-Times have joined a statewide reporting effort, "Breaking the Silence," about suicide in Oregon. Over the next two weeks, the newspapers will feature stories from our own staff writers and reporters from throughout Oregon on the topic. It's an important issue for Oregon, which suffers a higher rate of death by suicide than the national average — and has for the past three decades.

Yet, it's an issue that doesn't get the attention it should. It's not comfortable to talk about. It lurks in the shadows. The effort by Oregon news organizations is an attempt to break through the silence that too often envelops this vital problem.

It was a desire to break through the silence surrounding youth suicide, people aged 10 to 24, that prompted then-Rep. Sara Gelser of Corvallis to sponsor a bill in 2014 to create a five-year statewide youth suicide and intervention plan. Among other items, the bill mandated that the Oregon Health Authority prepare an annual report to the Legislature. 

The most recent report was released a few weeks ago. It paints a mixed picture: Although a number of promising initiatives are underway throughout the state, the data in the report demonstrates how far we have to go.

In 2017, the most recent year for which full-year statistics are available, 107 Oregonians between the ages of 10 and 24 died by suicide. (In 2016, the number was 98; in 2015, 90; in 2014, 97.)

Suicide is the second-leading cause of death, behind only automobile accidents, for people in that age group. The raw numbers work out to be about 14.1 completed suicides for every 100,000 people. That 14.1 rate has been rising steadily for years; for purposes of comparison, the number was 7.9 a decade ago. (The rate has been growing right alongside the overall suicide rate for the state; also, it seems likely that we have better information about youth suicide than we did a decade ago.)

Oregon has the 17th highest rate of youth suicide among all 50 states and the District of Columbia. It is a bit of a consolation, but just a bit, that the state ranked No. 15 in 2016.

Benton County in 2017 had nine hospitalizations for self-harm and one death by suicide in that age group. Linn County had 19 hospitalizations for self-harm and three deaths by suicide in the same year. (A copy of the annual report is attached to the online version of this column.)

Those are sobering numbers. But the new report also outlines a range of programs that have been launched in the last few years designed to drive those numbers down. 

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It will take time to assess the effectiveness of these programs, said Doug Gouge, the former youth suicide intervention coordinator for the Oregon Health Authority.

"We do have a lot going on," he said. "I don't think any of us want to have patience in this particular situation," but some patience will be required to see what programs work in Oregon and which ones are less effective. I liked how Gouge phrased the attitude required to battle youth suicide: "We need a patient urgency."

(I interviewed Gouge on his last day at the Health Authority; he left this past week to take a job working on mental health issues in Lane County. Work is underway to find his replacement.)

Prevention and intervention programs of note in the state include the Sources of Strength program, which was piloted in the mid-valley at South Albany High School; that program seeks to harness the power of peer social networks to change unhealthy norms and culture and ultimately prevent suicide, bullying, and substance abuse. Another initiative, the Connect program, aims to promote healing and minimize risk after a suicide impacts a school or another community; Connect training has been offered in Linn and Benton counties. The Health Authority launched a rapid-response system to provide post-suicide intervention programs to communities in need; the program was first used last year in a Salem school that had experienced three suicides in an eight-month period. 

A critical idea underlies many of these programs: The need to increase a sense of belonging and connectedness of youth to their families, peers and adults.

One key in the next few months, Gouge said, will be how the Legislature chooses to fund these initiatives. Gelser, who now serves in the state Senate, is optimistic: One bill, Senate Bill 707, would form a state advisory committee to examine the issue; Gelser sees it as a continuation of the state's Alliance to Prevent Suicide.

Gelser doesn't mince words: The 107 youth suicides in 2017 is "too many. That number is way too high."

But she, too, sees progress: Years ago, she said, "people whispered the word 'suicide.' We talk about it all the time now."

Still, though: "I won't be satisfied until that number is zero."

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Mike McInally is editor of the Democrat-Herald and the Gazette-Times. You can contact him at mike.mcinally@lee.net. For more stories in the "Breaking the Silence" series, go to this website: breakingthesilenceor.com.

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