Danbury teen’s death shines spotlight on suicide prevention
By Rob Ryser Updated 4:44 pm EST, Sunday, February 24, 2019
She was funny, caring and musically inclined in happier times.
But her teenage life was such a battle with mental health that she felt there was nowhere she could escape her anxiety and depression.
The day she took her own life at the Danbury Fair mall was supposed to be the day that took away the cascade of pain. But on Feb. 9, the pain was just beginning for the family of 16-year-old Hailey Nailor, and everyone who loved her.
Somewhere in Connecticut each day, her story is repeated in its own way.
The high-profile suicide of Nailor is elevating the discussion here and across the state about suicide prevention, and the larger issue of mental health reform.
“All of the research says that suicide doesn’t stand alone,” said Tom Steen, the father of a young man who took his own life, and the chairman of the Connecticut chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
“Something else is almost always going on such as depression or anxiety or bipolar disorder, which then puts pressure on someone to self-medicate — and you can easily see how complicated this issue becomes.”
Kevin Nailor, Hailey’s father, said there was a direct connection between the inability to get her the mental health treatment she needed and her suicide.
“No doubt - sadly, they go hand in hand,” Nailor said. “The systematic letdowns were just too great.”
The good news is Connecticut has the nation’s sixth-lowest suicide rate — in part because of a coordinated effort undertaken by nonprofits and government agencies after the Sandy Hook massacre to pool resources and attack the problem’s many facets from all sides.
The bad news is suicide remains the second-leading cause of death for people in Connecticut aged 15 to 34. And the overall number of suicides in the state has been increasing every year since 2014.
“In life, you have to stay a couple steps ahead, and kids and young adults can’t always do that,” Connecticut Assistant Child Advocate Faith Vos Winkel said. “It’s hard to see the outside world with all the depression and darkness surrounding you.”
A drop in youth suicide
Vos Winkel’s office, which tracks untimely deaths of Connecticut youth and investigates them when warranted, reports that the seven suicides of kids aged 11 to 17 in 2018 represented a 50 percent drop from the 14 suicides reported from that age group in 2017. But she cautioned against making too much of the steep one year drop — saying she has seen a similar dip in year-over-year youth suicides before, and that if she and her colleagues understood how to replicate the conditions of the down year, they would have already done so.
The spotlight on suicide prevention comes at a time of rising awareness about the need to reform the mental health system. Part of that awareness is due to small signs of change resulting from the 2016 Mental Health Reform Act co-sponsored by U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn. One small sign is more substance abuse treatment is being covered by insurance companies.
Heightened attention about the link between suicide and mental health is also happening at a time when self-inflicted death nationwide is on the rise.
The 47,000 suicides reported in 2017 was the highest it’s been in at least 50 years, according to the Associated Press. Moreover, over the last 20 years, the national suicide rate has climbed 33 percent. That makes suicide the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, and a top-five cause of death for the school-aged, the middle-aged, and young professionals.
In Connecticut, a coalition of nonprofits and state agencies is awaiting final 2018 suicide numbers from the state medical examiner’s office to look for trends that need immediate attention. For example, while white, middle-aged men are consistently at the highest risk for suicide here and nationwide, advocates are also watching suicide increases among other population groups, such as farmers.
“We have been working with the Department of Agriculture to train people who work with farming communities who may be at risk,” said Andrea Duarte, behavioral health program manager at the state’s Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services. “Between the fiscal crisis and climate changes that are unpredictable, these are major stressors for people.”
In 2017, the last year complete numbers are available, 400 people committed suicide in Connecticut, an increase of 3.6 percent over the previous year and a 53 percent increase over 2007, the year the Great Recession began.
The medical examiner’s office expects to release the final 2018 suicide numbers in early March.
Reason for hope
One reason advocates believe Connecticut is ahead of most of America in suicide prevention is the state’s tough gun laws — including those passed after 2012, when a chronically isolated 20-year-old with Asperger’s syndrome, advanced anorexia and anxiety disorder shot his way into a locked Sandy Hook School and murdered 26 first-graders and educators.
But advocates would also like to believe that their comprehensive and holistic approach to suicide prevention and mental health treatment is gaining traction in the war on Connecticut’s 11th leading cause of death.
“Social health, spiritual health and community health are all connected to make up our mental health and our overall well-being,” Vos Winkel said. “We cannot look at kids in isolation by saying mental health is over here and spiritual health is only when you are in church.”
Among the new prevention initiatives is the Signs of Suicide program, administered by Newtown-based Sandy Hook Promise. The program teaches peers how to spot the warning signs of suicide, and how to tell a trusted adult at the first sign of a red flag.
Duarte agrees with the approach.
“The message is that you have to take care of your mental health just like you need to take care of your physical health,” Duarte said. “And just like you have a plan to take care of your physical health, you should have a plan if you need mental health help.”
Duarte and other members of a coalition that runs Connecticut’s suicide prevention website are gearing up to revise the state’s five-year suicide prevention plan in 2020. The plan aims to accelerate promising work to improve substance abuse screening, to detect mental illness earlier in children and to ensure that as much time and money is being spent on behavioral health as physical health.
“They say you can never get to zero suicide, but that is the goal,” Vos Winkel said. “That should be our goal.”
Meanwhile the Nailors are taking each day hour by hour.
“Talking about it and shedding light on something that is so dark and secretive really seems to help,” Kevin Nailor said. “Removing the stigma is step No. 1.”