Clackamas County suicides shatter stigma barriers
Stigma around suicide doesn't allow people to talk about their suicidal feelings, nor does the taboo allow parents to talk about the devastating and crippling effect suicide has on the entire family, said Gladstone resident Kora Vanek, who lost her 19-year-old daughter to suicide in 2018.
Mikenna Vanek was a recent graduate from Clackamas Community College and Clackamas Middle College who earned a nearly 4.0 GPA. Even as a nurse with a psychology degree, Kora didn't believe suicide would happen in her family.
Looking back, the mother could see the warning signs that her daughter was at risk for suicide.
"With unmanaged bipolar depression and using alcohol for insufficient coping mechanisms, along with unavailable resources in her time of crisis, she ended her life," Kora said. "In the weeks to follow, we were surrounded by overwhelming support from our Gladstone community and we put in a memorial bench as Cross Park and sent any donation to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention."
Kora is now hoping to give back by hosting the first Portland Hike for Hope this month; (afsp.org/PortlandHike4Hope) funds earned will go towards suicide prevention, research and support for grieving families. On May 25, (Mikenna's birthday) participants in the event will be hiking a 3-mile loop in the Tryon Creek State Natural Area.
Shortly after Mikenna's passing, Kora learned of two other young adults in Clackamas County who died from suicide on the same day; she then became acquainted with the families of three other local young adults who were involved in self-inflicted deaths in the same six-month period.
"When you go on the internet you can't really see the reality of how many lives are affected by suicide," Kora said.
Turning the tide
In an unprecedented collaboration this spring, newsrooms across the state are highlighting the public health crisis of death by suicide in Oregon. Journalists seek to put a spotlight on a problem that claimed the lives of more than 800 people last year.
As newspaper reporters examine research into how prevention can and does work, we hope to make reader aware of resources to help if they — or those they know — are in crisis. Journalists have long shied away from reporting on individual suicides, except in rare circumstances, worrying that attention to suicides might cause a "contagion effect" or cause harm to surviving friends and family members.
This collaborative reporting project stemmed from a conversation about media coverage of suicide, facilitated by Lines for Life, a regional nonprofit focused on suicide prevention. Lines For Life chief executive Dwight Holton says it's crucial that Oregonians keep talking, as honest talk can shatter the barriers that prevent people from seeking help.
"Human connection is what matters," he said. "It's OK to not feel great, but what we know is: reach out for help, because help works."
Counselors at Lines For Life — which operates a 24-7 crisis center in Southwest Portland as part of the National Suicide Prevention Hotline (800-273-8255) — have been found to de-escalate more than 95 percent of all incoming calls without needing to contact first responders.
Oregonians are more likely to consider suicide than the average American — with nearly one-third across the state reporting that they've considered taking their own lives, according to a new poll.
A DHM Research survey found that 31 percent of Oregonians report having had suicidal thoughts, compared to 21 percent of all Americans.
The grim results align with Oregon's higher-than-average suicide rate. Last year, about 18 per 100,000 Oregonians lost their lives to suicide. Nationwide, it was 13 per 100,000 people.
"It's a more common experience in Oregon. They are more likely to know somebody, more likely to talk to somebody," said John Horvick, a vice president for the polling firm. "That ripples out into their relationships with other people."
But the concerning rate of self-harm doesn't mean cries for help go unanswered. In fact, 67 percent of Oregonians said nothing could stop them from trying to prevent a self-inflicted death, compared to 39 percent nationally. Many other respondents nationwide said they might hesitate for fear of doing or saying the wrong thing, or out of fear that nothing they did would make a difference.
Oregon's high rate of suicides may be helping to break down the stigma as well. Fifty-four percent of the survey respondents say they've talked openly about suicide, in contrast to 42 percent nationwide.
Here are the other key takeaways from the poll:
1. 70 percent of Oregonians have spent time worrying about a friend or family member's mental state. The national average is 33 percent.
2. About 34 percent of Oregonians know someone who has survived a suicide attempt, as opposed to 22 percent nationally.
3. Only 9 percent of state residents report no familiarity with suicidal thoughts or actions in their lives, compared to 28 percent of all Americans.
In follow-up interviews with the Pamplin Media Group, several poll respondents said they were not surprised to learn Oregonians are comfortable talking about suicide.
"I don't consider it to be a dark topic," said one participant, a Beaverton resident named Danny.
"Someone who (attempts) suicide is someone who has been pushed to their limit," he continued. "They couldn't think of any other way, and if they didn't seek out others to help them, then that's the course they chose."
Another respondent, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, highlighted the burden for those battling mental health issues in the LGBTQ community, especially for those in their teenage years.
"It's pretty lonely," said the Portland resident, who described feeling ostracized by friends after coming out as transgender. "There's this vast difference in outcomes, depending on whether a transgender person has a team of emotional support."
Holton said his organization receives many calls from people who have been "other-ized" due to their sexual or gender identity, with calls flowing particularly to the YouthLine (877-968-8491). That said, Holton notes that the people most likely to kill themselves are older white men.
"This challenge knows no racial, gender or other traditional boundaries. Suicide comes home to everybody," he said. "The most important thing we can do is make sure people know it's OK to reach out for help."
Clackamas County tackles the problem
Kora Vanek said her daughter Mikenna was part of a disturbing trend among local young people losing their life to suicide. Kora created a non-profit to preserve her daughter's legacy, the Mikenna Vanek Project, (www.mikennavanekproject.org), a project based group for depression awareness and suicide prevention including a monthly walking group. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention gave Kora contact information for Lake Oswego resident Liz Johnson, who had lost her son Parker in September 2014, starting the program, Wilderness for Life (pbjf.org) that sends teens and young adults in crisis to wilderness therapy.
On Feb. 1, 2018, two young people from Clackamas County besides Mikenna ended their own lives. They included a 19-year-old cheerleading instructor in Happy Valley, and a young boy in Canby who had gone with the Vanek family to build houses in Mexico just a year earlier.
In mid-April 2018, Kora was walking down by the memorial bench for her daughter when she ran into an old friend who told her of a woman who lived alone and had lost a son to suicide.
"I didn't feel I was in any condition to reach out, I wasn't a couple of years out like Liz was, but I knocked on her door anyway," Kora said. "She told me about her 20-year-old son Brian Edwards. He had also grown up in Gladstone and was an athlete and attending Clackamas Community College. He had had some difficulty with heartbreak but she also was hit out of the blue with his suicide."
The distraught mom told Kora only two weeks earlier, in April 2018, another 20-year-old graduate of Gladstone High School had ended his life.
"That made three in the city of Gladstone in three months," Kora said. "In the news, we lost Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade around the same time."
In July 2018, Kora's friend Barbie called about her son Jared Anderson, a graduate of Clackamas Middle College who had lived in Milwaukie and played soccer with Kora's kids.
"He also suffered from depression and substance abuse issues," Kora said. "The treatment facilities for addiction in Oregon will not admit you if you admit to being suicidal. He finally lied to get into one and was kicked out shortly after. Within days he ended his life."
Clackamas County runs a 24-hour crisis line at 503-655-8585 and a "senior loneliness line" at 503-200-1633 so people over 55 can talk with someone else their age. County officials have recognized that talking about the problem can help, organizing their first suicide prevention coalition meetings, which were covered by this newspaper in November 2018.
Mary Rumbaugh, director of Clackamas County's Behavioral Health Division, is making a special effort with her staff to spread awareness and inform the public about suicides. She said more participation and involvement by the public is still needed to prevent suicides.
Clackamas County has a 16 percent higher rate of suicide than the national rate, so the county has been working to identify who is at risk and how to get them help. In 2013 and 2018, there were 11 youth suicides (ages 10-24) in Clackamas County, the highest number of youth deaths by suicide. In 2017 there were five youth deaths by suicide and in 2016 there were six.
Firearms continue to be the most frequently used mechanism in suicides. In 2017, firearms were used in 25 deaths (39 percent), in 2016 they were used in 31 deaths (52.5 percent), and in 2015 firearms were used in 39 deaths (57.4 percent).
The national suicide-prevention foundation has developed a community-based presentation called Talk Saves Lives that covers the general scope of suicide, the research on prevention, and what people can do to fight suicide. Mikenna's birthday hike aims to raise funding for the program.
"We are hoping to raise $10,000 to go toward prevention, to get Talk Saves into the high schools, and so that we can continue this event annually," Kora said.
Portland Tribune Reporter Zane Sparling contributed to this news story.
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 800-273-8255
Lines for Life
What: A benefit for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
When: Registration begins at 9 a.m. for the walk from 10 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Saturday, May 25
Where: Hike a nearly 3-mile loop in the Tryon Creek State Natural Area, starting at the Huston Sports Complex near Lewis & Clark College, 10120 S.W. Boones Ferry Road, Portland