SPOKANE, Wash—Washington state legislators passed a groundbreaking suicide prevention bill in March that aimed to protect families from having to go through what one family did after two brothers took their own lives in 2003.
The Washington State Department of Health listed suicide as the second leading cause of death among young people between the ages of 10 and 24. Officials said suicide rates among young people in Washington were larger than the national average.
The mother of two suicide victims, Sandy Ross, looked through pleasant and painful memories with her daughter, the victims' sister, Sabrina Votava.
Ross’ son, Zach, went through a bout of depression in 2013 after he graduated college.
“I thought it’s very normal to get depressed,” Ross said.
The family remembered Zach climbing into a dark place, but he made a point to visit Votava. His sister remembered him being in great spirits.
They were all blind-sided when Zach took his own life the following week. The family came together, wondering why someone from their happy family would do something like that.
“I didn’t make those connections that I think I can make a little bit better now that I look back,” Votava said.
The family went to counseling after Zach’s suicide. They said the death was particularly hard on Zach’s brother, Kacey, who committed suicide six months later.
“What I’ve learned is that sometimes when there is a loss, it can put the people around that person at higher risk if they’re already at risk.” Kacey said.
Family members said they wanted other people to know more about the signs to be aware of, so they could get help.
The Washington State Legislature issued a new prevention bill, calling suicide a public health issue.
The bill required each district, beginning in the 2014-2015 school year, to adopt a plan for recognition, screening and response to emotional or behavioral distress in students. That would include possible substance abuse, violence and youth suicide.
Director of Student Services, Dave Crump of Spokane Public Schools, said he thought the bill was wise. Crump said he saw vulnerable students all the time.
“At a district level I see it weekly. Several times,” he said.
Crump and his colleague, Wendy Bleecker began additional training courses on suicide awareness, prevention and intervention in preparation to train others in the district.
“More people have thoughts about suicide than you would imagine and most people don’t talk about it,” said Wendy. “If we talk about it, then we can talk to someone about it and then those feelings are eliminated.”
The new legislature would require several staff members to undergo training on youth suicide, including new teachers, school nurses, social workers, psychologists and counselors. Both officials from Spokane Public Schools said the requirement would put responsibility on every individual so fewer students slip through the cracks.
Votava dealt with her own family’s heartbreak by diving into research and working for the youth suicide prevention program. She said she was glad to see the subject of suicide coming to light.
“It’s a scary subject,” Votava said. “Most of the time, it’s scary because we don’t know what to do about it.”
Votava said the key to preventing suicide is asking about it directly.
“You just go out and ask them, ‘Are you considering suicide?’” Votava explained. “That’s the only way you’re going to find out.”
“I’ve never experienced anybody who has had negative feelings about being asked directly, and I ask that a lot,” he said.
Both Crump and Votava believed the new legislation that would require more people to ask those questions, would save lives.