Out of the Darkness: Shedding Light on Youth Suicide in Hawaiʻi

Sep 6, 2017

Credit O'ahu Island Suicide Prevention Task Force

Every other day in Hawai’i, someone dies of suicide. That’s according to the state Department of Health’s latest figures. While suicide at any age is cause for concern, youth suicide has its own unique challenges. HPR’s Ku’uwehi Hiraishi reports.

27-year-old Denise Deguzman’s earliest suicidal thoughts happened in elementary school.

“I know it first started when I was in sixth grade. I started getting depressed. The thoughts were really frequent. The attempts varied like self-strangulation. I was definitely a cutter,” says Deguzman, “I mean I wasn’t happy. I knew I wanted to be doing something more, but I didn’t know what that meant.”

Deguzman is not alone. According to the state Department of Health, Hawaiʻi has the highest attempted suicide rate in the country for youth ages 10 to 24. For every suicide death in the islands, there are 25 attempted suicides.

The O'ahu Island Suicide Prevention Task Force meets periodically to develop strategies and coordinate culturally appropriate activities to prevent suicide in their community.
Credit O'ahu Island Suicide Prevention Task Force

“Sometimes they just need to know someone cares and you don’t have to be close,” says Deguzman, “You don’t have to be best friends. You don’t have to know everything about them.”

Leslie McKeague agrees. McKeague heads up a youth initiative for Oʻahu’s Suicide Prevention Task Force that focuses on training youth for peer-to-peer intervention. The program is called Aloha Ambassadors.

Credit O'ahu Island Suicide Prevention Task Force

“I think having an Aloha Ambassador, a peer, sit down and talk to them and say, ‘Eh, you know, I can relate to what you’re going through, because I’ve done it’ or ‘You know there’s help?” says McKeague, “I think it’ll be more effective to help them drop that guard down.”

2014 Out of the Darkness Walk in Kalia, O'ahu.
Credit O'ahu Island Suicide Prevention Task Force

This Saturday, the Oʻahu task force is holding their annual “Out of the Darkness” Walk to raise awareness for National Suicide Prevention Month. Pua Kaninau-Santos chairs the task force and says the goal is bringing the community together.

2014 Out of the Darkness Walk in Kalia, O'ahu.
Credit O'ahu Island Suicide Prevention Task Force

“Those who have lost loved ones to suicide, who might be struggling with a mental health concern like depression. And also for those who have attempted, those who are providers that support the outreach, and the help, and anybody who supports the cause – that’s what this walk is about,” says Kaninau-Santos.

Credit O'ahu Island Suicide Prevention Task Force

Deguzman says suicide was a taboo subject when she was a teenager, and she is happy to see youth-focused programs and an increased awareness in the community. Deguzman works as a behavior health technician and is pursuing her master’s in clinical mental health counseling.

“If I can go through all of the things that I did then other people can too,” says Deguzman, “Nothing would give me more purpose than to be able to help other people.”