DIGGING DEEPER: Youth suicide rates on the rise in Wisconsin

MONROE (WKOW) — Jacob Ellefson was 14 years old when he took his life inside his Monroe home. To this day, his parents still wonder why. And they aren’t alone.

"Not a day goes by that I don’t think about him," said Teri Ellefson, Jacob’s mother. 

Jacob was just about to enter his freshman year at Monroe High School when the unimaginable happened. 

"The date was June 7, 2012. We were to leave on a family vacation at noon," said Teri. 

The family was expected to take a trip to an out-of-state baseball game. Jacob’s dad, Kurt remembers showing Jacob the tickets the night before. 

"He was so excited," said Kurt. 

But the family would never go on that trip. His parents remember the day vividly. 

"At 10:41 that morning, I got a call at work and asked me to come home," said Teri as her voice trembled. 

She rushed home from town and pulled into the driveway. Her daughter met her in the front yard, telling her something was wrong with Jacob. Teri walked inside to find the family’s gun cabinet was broken into. She saw her pink hammer next to the glass and knew something was very wrong. 

Moments later, her friend who she had called on her rush back home, arrived and walked in the house. She went upstairs and found Jacob dead in his room. He had killed himself. 

"He didn’t show us any signs. It wasn’t on my radar that he was thinking about hurting himself," said Kurt. 

"I think he had depression and he hid it very well from us, not knowing how to ask for help," said Teri. "We just assumed everything was OK because everything looked like it was OK."

To this day, his parents still wonder why he did it. 

Hundreds of parents nationwide are asking the same question as youth suicide rates continue to rise in United States. Wisconsin has one of the highest youth suicide rates in the nation, according to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. 

"If we just keep letting it slip by, that’s just unacceptable," said Jean Papalia, a McFarland woman who works in suicide prevention. 

"It’s a difficult topic," said Papalia. "I know parents say, ‘Oh, it’s really difficult to talk to a teenager, but how often do you give them your undivided attention?’"

Without that focus on your child, Papalia warns children and teens could feel isolated and alone which is one of the largest risk factors that leads to suicide. 

"We’re seeing a climb overall across the board," Papalia added. 

Youth suicide rated in Wisconsin have doubled from 2007 to 2015, according to the Wisconsin Office of Children’s Mental Health. Between 2004 and 2013, our state lost 247 kids aged 10 to17, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC. 

"It’s a tragedy," said Papalia. 

But it’s a nationwide reality. In the latest data provided by the CDC, suicide is also the second leading cause of death for youth, ages 10 to 17.

For the past decade, Wisconsin’s youth suicide rates have been higher than the national average. 

But the cause isn’t so easy to explain. 

"That’s the million-dollar question. I wish I had the answer for that. It’s not going to be any one thing, it’s going to be many things," Papalia said. 

The CDC lists bullying, family history, mental illness and sexual orientation as leading risk factors. Papalia said parents, though, can lead the charge in preventing our youth from taking their own lives. 

"Asking open-ended questions: Tell me more. How did that make you feel? How’s that working out for you? Let me know how it goes tomorrow and then following up the next day — how are things going with that? Is it working out," Papalia said as examples. 

Doctors say one of the biggest warning signs is a change in behavior. 

"We know that most suicides occur for people who have quite treatable mental health disorders, usually depression, schizophrenia or bipolar," Papalia explained. 

And for those who know their child has though of suicide or hurting themselves, experts say you should have those tough conversations and help break the stigma. 

"You’re giving them permission to talk about a difficult subject and you’re allowing them to open the lines of communication," Papalia said. 

As the Ellefson’s look back, it’s something they wish they had the chance to do. 

"You’re never guaranteed a tomorrow with anyone," Teri said as she got teary-eyed. 

********

Jacob’s family created a foundation called ‘Jacob’s SWAG.’ By educating our youth about suicide and prevention, they hope to keep other children from taking their own lives. 

For more information about suicide prevention:

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
https://afsp.org/

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/

Wisconsin Department of Health Services
https://www.dhs.wisconsin.gov/mh/suicideprev.htm

Journey Mental Health Center
https://journeymhc.org/emergency-services/#suicide-prevention-hotline

Safe Communities of Madison – Dane County
https://safercommunity.net/

UW Health Services Suicide Prevention
https://www.uhs.wisc.edu/suicide-prevention/

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Our Facebook Live on how to talk to your kids about the subject of suicide. Watch HERE or below.

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