Local entities combat rising suicide rates in Harris County

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Cy-Fair resident Sarah Henderson attempted suicide for the first time when she was 15.

After growing up in an abusive environment, she said she resorted to self-harming, eating disorders and ultimately attempting suicide because she felt she had no other option to escape the trauma.

“I’ve heard people say it’s a selfish or cowardly act and, ‘They’re just transferring the pain to their families,’” she said. “There are some really unfortunate assumptions about suicide. I wish there was more compassion around it.”

Henderson, who raises awareness with groups such as the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, said she has survived multiple suicide attempts and also lost family members and friends to suicide.

In Harris County, there were 515 reported suicides last year—up 13.2% from the 455 suicides a decade earlier in 2008, according to the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences.

Brandon Towle, a board member for the AFSP’s Southeast Texas Chapter, said for every reported death by suicide, there are an estimated 25 suicide attempts. He said the fast pace of living and working in Houston as well as fluctuations in the local economy could tie into the increase in suicides.

“Whether you have a dual- or single-income family, one is likely going to have long commutes, so they’re losing a couple hours out of their family life,” he said. “A lot of families live in fear of losing their job. Most organizations think their employees are lucky to have a job, so they don’t necessarily invest in them.”

However, local entities including nonprofits, Cy-Fair ISD and law enforcement offices are implementing programs to combat rising suicide rates.

Youth outreach

According to the AFSP, some individuals are more at risk for suicide than others—including those with mental health conditions, chronic pain and stressful life events.

Stress for students comes in many forms, CFISD Director of Psychological Services Traci Schluter said. Students face stress when it comes to academic performance, applying for college and seeking acceptance from peers.

Social media has magnified these pressures, Schluter said, and outside of school, family relationships and finances can also be overwhelming.

“Some of the more common [misconceptions]expressed by parents and school staff include: ‘They’re just looking for attention,’ ‘They’re just going through a phase,’ and ‘I was the same way when I was a kid, and I turned out just fine,’” she said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports suicide was the second-leading cause of death for Texans ages 10-34 in 2017—the first year it was ranked as the second-leading cause of death for the 10-14 age group.

In response to the growing concern, CFISD launched a Mental Health Intervention Team—made up of two licensed psychologists, four licensed professional counselors and two mental health officers—at the start of the 2018-19 school year.

Schluter said the team has trained staff in new suicide risk screening and threat assessment protocols as well as response procedures.

“Research has shown that for a significant portion of the community, school-based mental health services represents the only mental health services they will ever access,” she said.

Alissa Sughrue, policy coordinator for the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Texas, said state lawmakers passed several bills regarding mental health in public schools during the 86th legislative session. This included House Bill 18, which increases training for employees and mental health education for students, and Senate Bill 11, which allots funding for districts to use for mental health resources and suicide prevention strategies.

CFISD approved 29 additional elementary school counselors in 2019-20.

The pressures students face typically do not diminish by college, said Caroline Ferguson, the founder of Grateful & Company. Proceeds from the 22-year-old’s local business support suicide prevention programs, therapists and campus workshops with the goal of eliminating suicides on college campuses.

After losing her father to suicide at age 9, the University of Houston graduate said she also lost a friend to suicide while in school.

A 2017 report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that 10.5% of individuals between the ages of 18-25 had suicidal thoughts in the last year—compared to 4.3% of adults ages 26-49.

“Depression [doesn’t care about] your age, your identity, who you are, where you came from, where you’re going,” Ferguson said. “It has no limit, it has no boundary. We all are capable of falling apart.”

Local resources

With the annual reported suicides in Harris County outpacing the county’s 15% population growth from 2010-18, law enforcement agencies and mental health specialists are working to bolster the mental health system.

Frank Webb, the project manager of Harris County’s Bureau of Mental Health and Jail Diversion, said the county has a Crisis Intervention Response Team and a Homeless Outreach Team to help connect suicidal individuals with assistance.

The county’s telepsychiatry program enables officers to access clinicians via iPads when encountering someone believed to be mentally ill. While training has also ramped up for law enforcement, Webb said officers generally are not adequately equipped to deal with individuals with mental health issues.

“We need more mental health resources,” he said. “Unfortunately, every law enforcement agency that I’m aware of—their numbers of responses to people with mental health issues and in crisis are going up … and the resources have gone down.”

Between 2015-18, the Harris County Constable Precinct 4 office received 234 suicide-related calls, according to precinct data. Harris County Constable Precinct 5 officers responded to 127 suicide-related calls during this time.

Counseling services are available through local groups including Shield Bearer and Cy-Hope. Regina Spencer moved to Cy-Fair in 2018 and opened Spencer & Associates Therapeutic Alliance on Jones Road.

When a loved one exhibits signs of suicidal thoughts, Spencer said being deliberate in letting them know they are not alone is key.

“They don’t feel like they’re worthy of help, and so they’re not going to bother you with their problems,” she said. “That’s generally why people do commit suicide—because they don’t want to be a burden.”

Progress made

After 22 years in her field, Spencer said many barriers around mental health care access have come down. For instance, telehealth has allowed busy clients to have therapy sessions via phone or video call during their lunch breaks while at work.

“There is a misconception that if you have anxiety or depression at all it’s a problem, but sometimes that’s a natural reaction to certain events,” Spencer said. “It’s when it disrupts your life that it becomes a problem.”

At the state level, Gov. Greg Abbott signed HB 3980 into law June 14, requiring the Statewide Behavioral Health Coordinating Council to study and prepare a report on Texas suicide statistics and prevention efforts.

Sughrue said the state currently does not fund any suicide prevention programming, although multiple attempts were made to change that earlier this year.

HB 2693 proposed establishing a grant program to fund community-based suicide prevention initiatives, but it did not pass. An amendment to HB 1 also would have created a

$2 million grant for these purposes, but the Senate ultimately elected to remove the amendment, Sughrue said.

Henderson said even in a metropolitan area such as Houston, there are never enough resources or funding for mental health care.

Conditions such as depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder and addictions are ubiquitous in Cy-Fair and in any community, she said.

“Suicide is something we need to talk about,” Henderson said.  “Not talking about it doesn’t mean it’s not happening, and pretending it’s not there doesn’t help.”

Additional reporting by Andrew Christman and Hannah Zedaker

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story inaccurately reported Harris County saw 391 suicides in 2008. The story has been updated to reflect there were 455 suicides in Harris County in 2008, according to the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences. 

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  1. Susan Blanchard

    There are several SOS (Survivors of Suicide) loss groups active in the Houston area. They are listed on the AFSP website: Wooodlands, Katy, Cypress, Galleria, Central Houston…

    Just wanted you to be aware. Thanks for the great article.

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Danica Smithwick
Danica joined Community Impact Newspaper in May 2016 after graduating with a journalism degree from Union University in Jackson, Tennessee. She covers public education, local government, business, demographic trends, real estate development, nonprofits and more in the Cy-Fair community.
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