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Suicidal thoughts may come from any number of issues, say local agencies

Free Lance-Star - 9/22/2023

Sep. 21—People tend to think that suicidal thoughts happen only to those with severe mental health issues, but that's not necessarily the case, according to speakers at an event called Suicide Prevention in Planning District 16.

"Suicidal thoughts are a symptom of a greater issue, a tap on the shoulder that something isn't going well" in any number of areas, said Laura Robertson, a suicide prevention coordinator at the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services.

Those areas might be medical problems, caused by the thyroid or immune disorders, having had trauma to the brain or long COVID, experiencing toxic stress or financial struggles, severe isolation or being homeless.

"The list goes on and on," she said.

Several community agencies gathered on a Zoom call Wednesday afternoon to discuss ways to identify if someone is having suicidal thoughts and how to help them.

In Planning District 16, which includes Fredericksburg and the counties of Caroline, King George, Spotsylvania and Stafford, the number of suicides rose 21% from 2021 to 2022, to 53 deaths, according to the state health department.

Data shows that rural areas tend to have the highest average rates of suicide deaths, and Allison Balmes — John, population manager for the Rappahannock Area Health District, was concerned to see that playing out locally.

King George County's rate of suicide deaths from 2016-20 is higher than any other locality in the planning district — as well as state and national averages. In the time span cited, King George had a rate of 21.3 suicides per 100,000 people compared to rates of 12.6 per 100,000 people in Spotsylvania County, 12.8 in Stafford County and 13.7 in Fredericksburg.

The only locality close to King George's high rate was Caroline, the other most rural locality in the area, with a rate of 17.8 suicide deaths per 100,000 people.

"The suicide rate is 84% higher (in King George) than the national average," Balmes — John said.

Other data from King George matched what's happening in the state. The incidence of suicide is highest among white males. Across Virginia, suicide is the No. 2 cause of death for people between the ages of 10 and 34, although in King George's case, half of the those who died by suicide were between the ages of 45 and 64.

While the risk factors that contribute to suicide can come from a number of different issues, there are warning signs, said Michelle Wagaman, prevention director at the Rappahannock Area Community Services Board.

Many of the signs listed under mood mirror "typical adolescent behavior," said Wagaman, the mother of two teenagers. She stressed how important it is for "noticers" to pay attention to what those around them are doing.

Signs include depression, anxiety, loss of interest, irritability, humiliation or anger. People may talk about killing themselves, feel hopeless or helpless, feel they have no reason to live, or they may be using more alcohol or drugs, withdrawing, acting aggressively or saying their goodbyes.

"Take it seriously," Wagaman said. "If they've been typically sad and depressed, and then they switch and are happy, that could signal they've made a decision."

She debunked the myth that asking people if they're considering suicide plants an idea in their head.

"It's already there," Wagaman said, adding people should practice in the mirror or with a partner how to ask direct questions with confidence. "You'll want to ask: Are you having thoughts of killing yourself? Are you having thoughts of taking your own life? Are you having thoughts of suicide?"

Avoid questions like "Do you want to die?" or "Are you thinking of hurting yourself?" she said, because harm or pain can mean different things to people.

During a crisis, people can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or text 741-741. The Rappahannock Area Community Services Board also provides emergency services and can be reached at 540/373-6876.

Mental Health of America of Fredericksburg has a HelpLine that provides assistance finding a mental health clinician. The service is available online at and at 540/371-2704, weekdays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Wagaman and Angela Jameson, a coordinator with the Central Virginia Healthcare System, which provides health services for veterans, talked about preventive measures people can take. They include lock boxes for prescription pain pills and over-the-counter drugs as well as locks on firearms, or storing guns in one place and ammunition in another.

"Often times, there's little planning that goes into these attempts," Wagaman said, adding that putting time and distance between the person and their possible method can prevent suicide.

The Rappahannock Area Community Services Board has a number of training programs available, ranging from Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training to Mental Health First Aid. More information is available by contacting Wagaman at or 540/374-3337, ext. 7520.

Jameson also works with suicide prevention programs for veterans and has a number of resources available. She can be reached at or 804/933-5732.

Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425











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