ANDERSON, Ind. (WISH) — Anderson firefighters opened their peer support network to all community members after a series of teen suicides in Madison County.
The group, aimed at preventing suicide and encouraging dialogue surrounding mental health, was founded in 2015 by the president of the local firefighters union.
James Harless, an Anderson firefighter who leads peer support training classes, said they expanded their reach after recognizing a larger need within the community.
“At the end of November, there were two teen suicides on the same night within the county,” Harless told News 8. “It just felt like we needed to step out of those boundaries of just helping our own.”
Suicide rates are up nationwide among both teens and first responders.
From 2007 to 2017, suicide rates among children 10 to 14 years old increased by 56%, according to data released in October by the Center of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The suicide rate for teens ages 14 to 19 increased by 76%.
Suicide rates among first responders are approximately 20% higher than the general public, according to a study by the Ruderman Family Foundation.
Firefighters, police officers and EMTs are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty, the study found.
“These aren’t just national statistics,” said Harless. “The community [in Anderson] is affected way more than I think people realize.”
During a support group meeting Tuesday night at Highland Middle School, experts identified communication as one of the toughest challenges associated with suicide prevention efforts.
“That’s the first step,” a counselor on a panel of speakers told the audience. “We want people to be able to talk about suicide or having suicidal thoughts.”
Angela Radford-Hart, a social worker at Highland Middle School, said she had noticed an increase in the number of students believed to be at risk of suicide during her six years on the job.
However, she had also seen a dramatic rise in the number of students self-reporting concerning thoughts or behavior, she said.
“It’s definitely encouraging that we’re seeing more students openly talking about suicide,” Radford-Hart told News 8. “It’s okay to talk about it. A lot of kids, especially at this age, think [having suicidal thoughts] makes them weird or different. Talking about it makes them realize they’re not alone.”
Open dialogue had also been beneficial for longtime first responders accustomed to “shoving things under the rug,” Harless said.
“For too long, the way first responders dealt with stress was just to shove it under the rug and forget about it,” he said. “There are so many resources out there. There are people to talk to.”
- NEED HELP? Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255.
- NEED TO TALK? Chat with a real person by calling (800) 284-8439 or texting “LOOKUP” to 494949.
- LEARN MORE: Visit LookUpIndiana.org for more local resources.