Five years ago, then-Rep. Sara Gelser pushed through the state Legislature a bill intended to pull the issue of youth suicide in Oregon out of the shadows.
At the time, it was difficult to even find basic data to help illuminate the issue. It was simply a topic that people didn't talk much about, and when they did, it was in whispers.
Gelser's bill mandated the creation of a five-year Youth Suicide Intervention and Prevention Plan. It created the position of youth suicide and prevention coordinator. It also mandated the creation of an annual report on the issue from the Oregon Health Authority.
Five years later, the number of Oregonians aged 10 to 24 who die by suicide still is much too high. The annual report from the Health Authority puts the number for 2017 at 107, including four in Linn and Benton counties. The number in 2016 was 98; in 2015, 90; in 2014, 97. (Our hunch is that the increased number for 2017 reflects both the fact that suicide rates for all ages in Oregon continues to rise and the likelihood that we're getting better reporting of youth suicides.)
But this year's annual report also trumpets real progress — a variety of programs in place across Oregon intended to get help to people who need it and to help vulnerable young people access the resources and the connections they need to navigate through a period of crisis.
And, five years after the passage of Gelser's House Bill 4124, the issue of suicide in general is back before the Legislature in a big way. Legislators face budget challenges in this session, with state revenues not keeping pace with rising costs. But their actions also will mean the difference between continuing to make progress in the battle against youth suicide — or allowing the issue to slide back into the shadows.
Gelser's in the state Senate now, but she's still working on the issue. One of her bills, co-sponsored by Sen. Rob Wagner, would require school districts, colleges and universities to notify the Health Authority when a student dies by suicide. The state agency then would provide assistance to schools as needed.
The bill, which Gelser said clarifies reporting responsibilities, unanimously passed the Senate and entering this week was scheduled to go before the House. Gelser and Wagner also want to require county and tribal governments to notify schools and other local programs and agencies about the suicide of a person under the age of 25 who has had contact with them.
Another bill from Gelser, Senate Bill 707, would form a state advisory committee to look at ways to reduce the suicide rate among Oregon youth. The committee, which Gelser sees as a continuation of the Alliance to Prevent Suicide, would work with the Oregon Health Authority and make recommendations.
Another bill that easily passed the Senate is Senate Bill 52 — often referred to as Adi's Act, after Adi Staub, a transgender Portland teen who died by suicide in 2017. The legislation would require every public school district in the state to develop a suicide prevention plan for students in every grade level, from kindergarten through 12th grade. The plans would have to account for what the bill terms “high-risk groups” — including LGBTQ students, students experiencing homelessness, students with disabilities and mentally ill students — as well as addressing suicide within the general student population.
Since those bills require little or no additional spending, they seem likely to move ahead in the session. Bills that require additional investment may face tougher sledding. As they sharpen their budget pencils, though, legislators may want to keep this in mind: These are bills that have the potential to save lives.