Johnson County experiencing an ‘epidemic’ of youth suicide, says mental health center leader

Johnson County Mental Health Center Director Tim DeWeese said Johnson County was experiencing an “epidemic” in teen suicides.

Johnson County is experiencing a crisis of youth suicides, the director of the Johnson County Mental Health Center said Tuesday, and the pervasiveness of bullying appears to a contributing factor.

Tim DeWeese, one of four panelists at a forum on kids mental health and the Kansas foster care system convened by the group Strengthen Families Rebuild Hope, said Johnson County has seen almost twice as many teen suicides the first three months of 2018 alone as it did in all of 2017.

“There is an epidemic and it goes largely untalked about,” DeWeese said.

The issue has touched multiple Shawnee Mission school communities this year. Two Shawnee Mission Northwest students killed themselves in January. Last month, an Indian Hills Middle School student died from suicide.

DeWeese said mental health professionals here have seen a correlation between increase incidents of suicide and the use of cell phones and social media as vehicles for bullying. The days where bullied students could expect to get away from their tormentors after the school day was over are in many ways gone, he said.

“Today’s bullying is very direct. ‘You need to go kill yourself.’ ‘If I was you, I’d want to be dead,'” DeWeese said. “And not only do you get that at school, but because of technology, where I could have gotten an evening reprieve, or even a weekend reprieve, you have 24 hours a day, seven days a week, every time your phone beeps. That’s what we’re talking about.”

The effects of bullying are among the top reasons groups of Shawnee Mission parents have lobbied the school board this year to figure out a way to provide a full time counselor at every elementary school. Parents and students from Trailwood told the board about how bullying had affected their families at the March meeting. The previous month, a group of Corinth parents raised the same concerns.

DeWeese suggested that adults could help play a part in combating bullying by modeling civility and compassion, characteristics that are “grossly lacking in today’s discussions.” But he also said Johnson County schools could do a better job of teaching kids how to be resilient.

Saying that many communities here have a “culture of perfection” where “failure is not an option,” DeWeese argued that students may feel undue pressure.

“If we expect only perfection, then our kids never have the opportunity to fail,” he said. “They never have the opportunity to learn, change and grow from the mistakes they made.”