BURLEY — The last words Minico High School Counselor John Kontos said to his 17-year-old son, Rhett, before the boy took his own life still echoes in his mind nearly five years later.
“As he walked into choir class that last morning I said, ‘Good morning, I love you. I hope you have a good day,’” Kontos said.
“It wasn’t a good day.”
Community leaders, spurred by the Cassia County School District and the Minidoka County School District, are brainstorming ideas to curb suicides. Idaho is consistently among the states with the highest suicide rate, and ranked eighth in the nation in 2016. Suicide is the second leading cause of death in Idaho for people ages 15-34 and for males up to age 44.
Locally, school and community leaders have suggested starting a Mini-Cassia chapter of the Suicide Prevention Action Network of Idaho, which operates under a non-profit status to allow fundraising, find more activities to keep youth occupied and do screening for intervention.
“It’s a problem in our community,” said Debbie Critchfield, Cassia County School District spokeswoman. “It’s not a just a school problem or a business problem, it touches the lives of every part of our community.”
A community-wide ripple
Rhett, along with the rest of the Kontos family, had been dealing with the loss of his adoptive mother, Ann.
“I don’t know all the demons that he was struggling with,” Kontos said.
But, he said, it is up to parents and educators to recognize when children are struggling.
His son’s death left him replaying the list of things he could have done to prevent it.
“There is nothing you can do to change it,” he said. “You have to move forward.”
As a counselor, he previously wondered how parents had missed the signs that their child was contemplating suicide.
“It’s something I’ll take to my grave,” Kontos said.
A para-educator at White Pine Intermediate School, Ellen Salazar worked with a girl in the fourth grade she knew was struggling.
One day after she watched the student try to drop her eye glasses into a bin with her breakfast tray, she felt compelled to intervene.
After talking with the school principal, Child Protective Services were called to pay a home visit, but the results left Salazar feeling helpless.
Four years later, this past summer, “she made her final decision and ended her life,” Salazar said.
“I’ve often wondered if my phone call made things worse for her at home,” Salazar said.
But, she said, educators have to speak up when they notice something amiss with a student.
The scope of suicide
Kim Kane, manager of the Idaho Suicide Prevention Program, said a couple of the best ways to react to someone a person thinks may be feeling suicidal is to help them focus on reasons to live, help them find professional help and by taking firearms out of the home or locking them up with any pills.
Depending on the year, she said, 60-65 percent of the suicide deaths in the state are caused by firearms.
“I can tell you I know a lot of families who wished they would have taken the guns out of the house,” Kane said. “I don’t want to know any more of those families.”
Although every death by suicide impacts the community, it is still statistically rare and most people who contemplate the act recover and do not act on it.
Even so, between 2012 and 2016, 105 school-age children died by suicide. There were 27 suicides in children age 14 or younger.
In the South Central Public Health District, there were 36 suicides in 2016.
Cassia County Undersheriff George Warrell said the sheriff’s dispatch has taken 36 suicide calls since Oct. 1. Two suicides were completed.
Kane said when dealing with youth it is important to make sure the messages they receive are positive.
It is easy for children to normalize trauma which is routinely posted on social media.
Cassandra Chesnut, a student at Burley High School, lost her mother three months ago to suicide. Her grandmother took her own life when Cassandra was a young child.
As her senior project she wants to print the phone numbers for the suicide hotline and poison control on the backs of student activity cards. She also wants to implement support groups for students who have lost a family member or friend.
“When they know other students have gone through the same things, it will help them,” Chesnut said.