Posted: August 4, 2017 at 4:30 am

In 2014, suicide was the second leading cause of preventable deaths for children between the ages of 1 and 17 in West Virginia, according to a new report, submitted to the legislature at the end of 2016. A total of 253 children in the state died in 2014, and 97 of those deaths were deemed preventable by the state’s Child Fatality Review team. Of the 57 “preventable” deaths of kids ages 1 to 17, 13, or 22.8 percent, were suicides, making it the second leading cause behind accidents.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 323 people took their lives in the Mountain State that same year giving West Virginia the 17th highest ranking for suicide nationally among the states.

Eight children in 2014 took their lives with firearms. Four died from asphyxia, and one took an overdose of drugs. The victims of suicide were between the ages of 10 and 17.

Though the child fatality review team only looked at deaths of children between from birth to 17, the national child fatality database maintains statistics for ages 0 to 19. The national database lists the number of suicides at 20 in 2014. That number is double the 10 suicides in 2010 for the same age group. In 2015, the last year for which firm data was provided, the number was 13.

Teens at Risk

“Often times, teenagers aren’t fully aware of how to handle their emotions,” said Bethany Owen, a Licensed Professional Counselor at Women in Balance and Children in Balance in Morgantown. “Sometimes kids have a hard time realizing that failures in life can be learning experiences.”

Bonnie Clark attempted suicide four times before turning 21.

“I felt like I had no reason to be on this earth, that no one would love me for who I am, and that my family would be better off without me,” Clark said. She eventually realized she was battling depression and gained perspective on how her death would affect her loved ones.

Alex Eddy is a counselor at the Mountaineer Boys & Girls Club in Morgantown. He said one thing that helps kids gain that needed perspective is helping them understand  where they are in the timeline of their lives.

In 2015, West Virginia’s Legislature passed a bill requiring middle schools and high schools to distribute and discuss suicide prevention information with their students. Bullying is one area of constant concern. Under current laws, schools and teachers are not required to undergo bullying prevention training. However, they must attempt to intervene in incidents of bullying and harassment and report them to their administrations.

Matthew Martin, a communications professor at West Virginia University, studies bullying, student learning, and verbal aggression.

“There is evidence showing that when a kid is subjected to long-term bullying, not only does it hurt their immediate performance, but it also increases the likelihood that the child will drop out of school,” Martin said.


The Role of Firearms

The Fatality Review report is to be submitted annually to the state legislature by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. Health professionals, state emergency officials, law enforcement officials, data abstractors, and an epidemiologist produce the report. These professionals review the circumstances of all deaths deemed preventable, looking for ways to prevent future fatalities.

In the cases of suicide in 2014, eight of the 13 kids who took their lives did it with firearms; five with a handgun, one with a shotgun, one with a hunting rifle, and one with an assault rifle.

Among the cases of suicide by firearm, the fatality reviewers noted there were few if any safety features present or any safety precautions taken. Four out of eight firearms were stored loaded, three out of eight were stored with ammunition, and only three out of eight were stored in a locked storage cabinet.

None of the firearms had a minimum weight pull-trigger (which renders the firearm unusable to any child not strong enough to apply the minimum pressure).  None had a magazine disconnect (which prevents the firearm from firing if the magazine is not completely seated in the chamber). None had a loaded chamber indicator (which visually indicates that the firearm has a bullet ready to be fired), and none had  a trigger lock (which encapsulates the trigger making it inaccessible to anyone without the key). Only one had an external safety switch.

West Virginia has some of the least restrictive gun laws in the country and is one of 22 states that do not currently have a child access prevention law. Child access prevention laws range from simply prohibiting people from directly providing firearms to minors to criminal liability when a weapon is accessed after being stored negligently.

Caleb Givens, a Firearm Safety Instructor with the NRA said it is important to teach children respect for guns early and make use of the safety devices available.

In a Q&A below, he answers questions about gun safety and how to properly store firearms to prevent children from using them either accidentally or intentionally.

In 2014, males committed 12 of the state’s teen suicides.  Only one female teen committed suicide. Nationally, males make up 77.9 percent of all completed suicides. Males complete suicide at four times the rate of females, though females attempt suicide three times more than males.

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, some warning signs a person considering suicide might display can include:

  • Talk about being a burden to others.
  • Talk about having no reason to live or wanting to kill them self.
  • Changes in behavior including uncharacteristically acting reckless, isolating themselves or giving away prized possessions.
  • Bouts of rage, loss of interest in things they were once interested in or if they’re seeming depressed.

Prevent Suicide WV,  is an organization providing resources and education about suicide.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255.

Story, videos and graphics by Zane Coss