Local Group Combats Suicide in Pandemic

Local volunteers and mental health workers respond to challenges on all fronts brought on by COVID-19.


The Gig Harbor-Key Peninsula Suicide Prevention Coalition was formed in 2012 after two local teens died by suicide in close succession. The coalition has since developed programs to support survivors and their loved ones and to train for prevention.

“Our focus is really on raising awareness and giving people the tools to get the care they need,” said Bob Anderson, head of the coalition board of directors.

“Culturally, we need to change how we view suicide,” board member Anne Nesbit said. “The words that get attached to it — crazy, unstable — make people feel like they can’t even talk about their struggle without judgment.”

The coalition regularly makes presentations to Peninsula School District students and other groups about how to talk about suicide, recognize the danger signs and help someone in need. It has developed a curriculum for sixth, seventh and eighth graders starting with self-care, acceptance of differences and learning the signs of trouble.

“I really feel like the kids are receptive,” Nesbit said. “They want to talk about it. They want to know how to talk to their friends.”

The training and support discussions have continued online throughout the pandemic.

“We presented to the KP middle school kids and all the health classes at Gig Harbor and Peninsula High School this year (2020),” she said. “It was a great insight into what the teachers have been struggling with, because on Zoom a lot of kids don’t have their cameras on; they have their profile picture up so you can’t see how they’re reacting.”

Nesbit and other presenters got past that hurdle with online breakout rooms.

“That was more intimate. Some kids did reach out to share their story or because they were worried about a friend or had a question about something that we said. But it was not as satisfying.”

The need for emotional support, mental health and addiction treatment increased significantly in 2020 on the peninsulas just as it has across the country during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to an August 2020 survey conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, among people ages 18-24, 25% “seriously considered suicide in the past 30 days,” and 75% experienced debilitating anxiety or depression. More than 40% of U.S. adults reported struggling with mental health or substance abuse.

While suicide rates around the world have declined, they have steadily increased in the U.S. since 1999, including 35% in the last 20 years, according to the CDC. In the two years after the 2008 Great Recession, the rate increased four times as quickly as it had in the eight years before.

It takes the CDC up to two years to track annual U.S. deaths by suicide, meaning the effect of the pandemic may not be known until it is over.

But suicidal thoughts are not the first sign of a crisis, according to a 2020 study published in The Lancet. There is a strong correlation between suicide and financial pressure, such as that caused by unemployment. Early warning signs include substance abuse, anxiety, depression, domestic violence and homelessness.

Overdoses increased 38% across the U.S. in 2020; domestic violence in some parts of the country doubled, including in Seattle and surrounding areas.

“There’s been more overdoses, we’ve had more domestic stuff, we’ve had a gunshot, there’s been more people fighting, and that’s down to COVID and frustration,” said Nesbit about the KP. Nesbit is also the public information officer and volunteer battalion chief for Fire District 16.

“Mental health resources are still scarce out here,” she said. “The biggest thing is talking. If you notice something different from the norm for someone, and that can be them suddenly sad or even excessively happy, ask them about it. And you can call crisis lines to get advice if you’re worried about someone. Or you can call me and we can figure it out.”

Nesbit said “Something that’s especially hard is to ask someone if they are thinking of suicide. It’s not going to give them the idea. What it does is show them that you’re paying attention. They’re going to want to talk.”

In 2019, the coalition funded a project to place signs along the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and several parks on the Key Peninsula referring people to a suicide crisis hotline. Anderson said there have been several instances in which these signs have saved lives.

In 2020, after operating under the auspices of the Key Peninsula Community Council, the coalition submitted applications to become its own nonprofit organization.

Anderson said the move was inevitable as the organization grew. It will change the way the coalition funds their services, but it will continue to work with the KPC.

“I can’t overstate how much we appreciate all the support we’ve received from the community council,” he said. “They’ve been essential in reaching our goals.”

As an independent nonprofit, the coalition will be eligible for federal funding, grants, tax benefits and more. It relied on its partnership with the KPC to receive such funding in the past.