As suicides have risen in Virginia – including a 29 percent increase among children in 2016 – Gov. Ralph Northam has signed legislation calling on state officials to report how they are addressing the problem.
By Scott Malone for Capital News Service
House Bill 569, introduced by Del. Wendy Gooditis, D-Clarke, requires the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services to report annually its progress and activities on suicide prevention. The report will go to the governor and General Assembly.
The bill is of special significance to Gooditis, who was elected in November to represent the 10th House District, which includes parts of Clarke, Frederick and Loudoun counties. During the first two weeks of her candidacy, Gooditis lost her brother to alcoholism and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“He had a number of suicide attempts. It was part of the reason I was running in the first place. I found him dead two weeks after I announced my candidacy,” Gooditis said. “At that point, I don’t think anyone would’ve penalized me for quitting. But I had met so many who needed help, I couldn’t quit. I had to run and try to get the seat to try to speak for people who need someone to speak for them.”
Northam signed Gooditis’ bill last month – about the time that the state’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner released its latest annual report on causes of death in Virginia.
Compiled by Kathrin Hobron, a forensic epidemiologist, the study provides statistical details on deaths that occurred in 2016, including homicides, suicides, accidents and other causes. The report states that it “reveals several trends of which the citizens and leaders of Virginia should be aware.”
Those trends include a spike in suicide rates for children (defined as 17 and younger) in Virginia. In 2016, the rate was the highest it has been in at least 18 years.
In 1999, the report said, 23 children in Virginia committed suicide – a rate of 1.3 suicides per 100,000 population. In 2015, 35 children committed suicide in the state. In 2016, the number jumped to 45 child suicides – or 2.4 suicides per 100,000 children.
“Child suicides are very similar to adult suicides as they occur more frequently in males (roughly 62 percent) and whites (roughly 78 percent). White males have the highest rate of child suicide,” the report stated.
Twenty-two – almost half – of the 45 child suicides in Virginia in 2016 involved firearms, usually handguns. That was the most common method of child suicide, followed by asphyxiation.
Under Virginia law, it is a misdemeanor to “recklessly leave a loaded, unsecured firearm in such a manner as to endanger the life or limb of any child under the age of fourteen.” Even so, some children manage to obtain a gun and commit suicide each year.
Gooditis said in an interview that she was familiar with the medical examiner’s report. It further demonstrates that something must be done, she said.
“It’s just horrific. We have to intervene and teach [children] ways of handling their emotions so those emotions don’t take over,” Gooditis said.
The number of suicides of Virginians of all ages also has increased in recent years. In 2016, it reached 1,156 – up from 1,097 the previous year. By comparison, there were 884 suicides statewide in 2006.
In 2017, the General Assembly passed a bill requiring the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services to issue a one-time report about its suicides prevention measures. HB 569 builds on that legislation by having the agency report on its efforts every year.
In its report last year, the department updated the governor and the General Assembly on projects such as the Lock and Talk Virginia Campaign, which aims to reduce suicides by restricting individuals’ access to firearms and poisons when they are in a mental health crisis. The agency also discussed its efforts to educate the public on how to recognize and respond to suicidal warning signs.
Under the bill Northam signed into law March 19, the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services must issue such a report by Dec. 1 every year.