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Taking A Stand To Stop Suicide

September 9, 2013 1:28 p.m.


Alfredo Aguirre, director, County Behavioral Health Services

Aerial Cetnar, peer educator and president of SDSU's Active Minds student organization.

Related Story: Taking A Stand To Stop Suicide


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: The beginning of a new school year can be a challenging time for college students. Some are away from home for the first time. Some kids can get emotionally overwhelmed and depressed. So San Diego's universities are joining with county officials and mental-health providers to mark national suicide prevention week. They are working to decrease San Diego's suicide rate, which hit a record high of 413 suicides last year. I'd like to welcome my guests, Alfredo Aguirre is director of the San Diego County behavioral health services. Alfredo, welcome back to the show.

ALFREDO AGUIRRE: Maureen, it is great to be here again.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Aerial Cetnar is a peer educator and president of SDSU's active minds and student organization area, thanks for coming.

AERIAL CETNAR: Thank you I'm glad to be here.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: When the initiative was announced last Friday we got a firsthand look at the long-term effects that the suicide has on friends and family members. San Diego supervisor Ron Roberts became emotional about being told his own father had taken his life.

RON ROBERTS (RECORDING): Suicide is a double tragedy, not only because of the lives that are being lost but also the ongoing and emotional heartbreak to the families. I can attest to that. Many years ago as a student here at San Diego State I was studying in the library, one of those rare occasions and my wife, Eileen, came to find me to share with me the news that my father had committed suicide. I know the personal scars that you carry.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That is San Diego County supervisor Ron Roberts. Alfredo Aguirre the county suicide rate was at a record high last year 413 people. Do you know what's causing the increase?

ALFREDO AGUIRRE: Any time a suicide occurs one in one year is too many, but yes it is of concern. Typically when you see spikes in suicide it's usually related to the economic downturn and unemployment that is a factor and certainly if you look at, if you take that long look and you look at per capita suicide rate for our County this year it certainly does, to the peaks we had early in the 1990s or late 1990s however that is an increases, 21 more then we had last year and typically we average one per day over the past few years. Again, one thing we do know is that untreated depression does lead to suicide. Researchers have found that. And there's other factors, alcoholism and other issues, lack of health, or decrease in health. And so all these factors come into play, certainly.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Are we seeing a trend, any kind of trend is for his age groups or ethnicity or men, or women, the demographics, is there any kind of a trend? Who's committing suicide in San Diego County?

ALFREDO AGUIRRE: What has definitely solidified his the 35 to 64 age bracket we are seeing that's where the age is what has held steady typical nationally is 75% of the suicides are men. So that is pretty typical and there's other statistics in terms of age groups, the adolescent age group and young adult age group is pretty much holding steady compared to past years. So that is not significant. One thing we have seen is we are still somewhat under the national average but a little bit over the state average per capita so that is always a concern.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right, I was going to ask you as you say one person taking their own life is too many but where does San Diego sort of fits in the range of other counties in California? Are our numbers larger, or are they smaller?

ALFREDO AGUIRRE: Again, compared to the state we are slightly larger. Compared to large counties in Southern California, Los Angeles and the Bay Area we are pretty much pretty even with those counties. However, statewide we are a little bit over the average which means your middle size and smaller counties have lower suicide rates. But consistent in terms of large areas with the major urban centers we are pretty comparable to those counties.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Alfredo if you could just remind us, what are some of the warning signs to watch forfor people who are perhaps concerned about a friend or a relative? What should they be on the lookout for when it comes to suicide?

ALFREDO AGUIRRE: I think lack of interest in taking part in typical activities, one is involved in. Detachment from friends, perhaps loss of appetite. Lack of perhaps motivation, whether it is with their schoolwork or with their job. And perhaps just as I said before, untreated depression is a big indicator, risk factor for suicide. And again, the other thing is you need to look, there are other risk factors like again as I mentioned earlier, decrease, a loss of health. Again, losing your grub or your home, divorce, separation, one of the things you will often find with young adults in school is a parent dying, whether it is over a long-term illness or sadly in that has a tremendous impact on students and certainly Ariel can comment more on that later but that's one of the things we can look at in terms of risk factors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let me bring Aerial into the conversation you are a peer educator president of STS use active student mind organization now according to the suicide prevention resource Center an estimated 1100 college students across the country take their own lives each year. Tell us if you would about the not on my watch campaign at SDSU and how you are working to hopefully reduce the number of suicides.

AERIAL CETNAR: So the not on my watch campaign is going to be handing out of their resources and information that we have available for it and basically it is a little package that has resources such as phone numbers and the watch says, not the watch, the bracelet says not on my watch and it has 888-724-7240 and this is San Diego's access and crisis line basically anyone that knows anyone that is thinking about suicide or if someone is thinking about suicide they can call that number so the outreach is tomorrow for a couple of hours and we are just there to let everyone know that this is a conversation that needs to be had and we are handing out things to let everyone know that this is suicide prevention week.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, what are specific stressors for college kids that can lead to depression and therefore perhaps lead to suicidal thoughts?

AERIAL CETNAR: There's a lot of college students go through especially you know, turning 18 and starting the beginning of their lives really becoming an adult and being independent from their parents there's a lot of things going on whether it is homesickness, feeling lonely, a lot of people feel lonely and you know, some people feel like you know I'm just not connecting with anyone there's a lot of stress to do well in school you know when it comes to terrorists there's a lot of anxiety there's just you know, working a certain way there are so many things that contribute especially with college.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What about bullying? I know there's a lot of outreach in high school about that does not transfer over to college?

AERIAL CETNAR: I haven't heard too much about that lately but it's probably something that would definitely have to be addressed as well.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Aside from getting the bracelet and having the information package and the number to call if someone is at risk of suicide, what other kinds of outreach do you do with this campaign?

AERIAL CETNAR: So we are actually going to be doing outreach: it's going to be a candlelight vigil on October 1st. Is going to be from 5:30 to 8:30 and basically from that timeframe anyone on campus can come and go as they please and make it my candle in memory of anyone they know that has been lost by suicide and they can write a message, write their name, date, whatever they wish to write, so we will just have a bunch of candles lined up at school in memory of those who have been lost to suicide and during the day we will have that reaches with signs everywhere that you know, know the signs, and as well as handing out all the resources that we have available on campus for those that are thinking about that.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Alfredo, how important are friends and family when it comes to spotting someone who might be in that kind of distress. I think there are many people were close to a situation like that who sometimes may not know what to do.

ALFREDO AGUIRRE: Yes and it's frankly unusual for someone often to identify, I'm feeling depressed, I'm thinking about ending my life and I need to see a counselor right away. Often those messages are conveyed to a counselor or friend” we are stressing is certainly there are trained professionals, there are trained individuals in the faith community that are there, trained, know the signs, or know what to look for. But what is most important is the general community and one of the things we are doing is a campaign that is really centers on something called QPR, which is question, persuade and refer. And this model is again how do you reach out to friends, how can you directly as someone are you thinking about committing suicide. In our culture there is a bit of, someone of the math that if you start talking about this idea you will plant an idea in someone's mind in the reality is in many cases this is already planted in their mind. It's able to allow that, provided comfort level provide the environment for the an individual talk about what they are thinking, their ideas and again part of it is being there for the individual you know, talking to them where is a good place to refer you to, would you feel comfortable with whether it's your primary care whether it's a guide counselor is it, you know, someone in your church and to assist the individual and really to be there for the individual to to facilitate the referral and a serial mentioned earlier on my watch we have the 188 number which is the axis and crisis point where we have trained professionals that can help guide individuals to figure out where to go next to take the issue.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Going back to the emotional statement from supervisor Ron Roberts to the presentation on Friday talk just a little bit about afraid about the ripple effect suicide has on the community.

ALFREDO AGUIRRE: First of all it was powerful and courageous for supervisor Roberts to come forward that really sends a message of acceptance coming from a county official and someone with Ron's experience and all of his relationships that he said that he's built over the years for people to hear that it really doesn't normalize this most of us have a family member that has committed suicide impact some of it has intergenerational effect I can talk about my own family my grandmother committed suicide in Central America there was a myth around how she died in my and finely shared with us about 20 years ago of how she really died. And she did commit suicide. And again, that is, someone definitely related to stigma. We don't want to talk about it. You want to have a good ending to the deaths of our family members and suicide is perceived as not obviously something that is to be ashamed of and for us to talk about that we can talk about wealthy other legacy some of that other family members that may be struggling with anxiety and depression backgrounds us to let us know when you do have our eyes open our ears open to be supportive, be receptive and except her grandmother for all she offered the family and also say she suffered and that is something we can accept.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Aren't there, Aerial, even instances where one suicide on campuses can lead to more suicide on campuses that has sort of that ripple effect?

AERIAL CETNAR: Well I haven't personally read about those happening on campus usually probably I'm assuming they keep that under, they don't really talk about it and that's the thing, they tend to not want to talk about these things and that's why we have the peer educator program.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Exactly and the peer educator program. You think that students, do they really have an easier time talking to their peers, to other students about whatever is troubling them and their perhaps thoughts about suicide?

AERIAL CETNAR: Right, that is the big thing what I've experienced the past years the peer educators we've had students come up to and say oh my gosh thank you so much for being here my so and so died from suicide, my mom, my dad, my friend, my brother I really wish you would have been here before to do this and I wish I would have known so we are really glad that we are able to be that person on campus. The people are comfortable coming up to and talking about it.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Can you give us that number one more time?

AERIAL CETNAR: It is 1888-724-7240.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I've been speaking with Alfredo Aguirre and Ariel she is a peer educator president of SDSU's active minds to an organization thank you so much for coming in and talking to us about this.

BOTH: Thank you.