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Dealing with teen suicides

Connie Steiert

Yet for some adolescents, the dark hole they fall into seems to be impenetrable blackness, and the falling is endless, with no one to catch them; no hope in sight.According to the State of Colorado’s Department of Public Health and Environment, Colorado had the fifth highest rate of suicide in the nation in 2001, and the Rocky Mountain region has the highest suicide rate in the country today. More alarming, many of these suicides are adolescents. Suicide is the fifth leading cause of death nationwide among five- to 14-year-olds, and the third leading cause of death among those 15 to 24 years old. In 2002, 55 young people in Colorado, ages 10 to 19 years old, committed suicide, and Colorado’s rate of suicide has passed the national average by more than 30 percent. These statistics were released as a part of the state’s “Suicide Shouldn’t be a Secret” campaign, aimed at Western Slope youth and their communities. The awareness campaign, originally created for the national group, the American Suicide Prevention group, was fine tuned by Ant Hill Marketing for Colorado to target Eagle, Mesa, La Plata, Jefferson and Adams Counties.”I think it is very powerful to have teens delivering the message,” said Shannon Breitzman, director of injury and suicide prevention programs for Colorado’s Department of Public Health and Environment. “Kids need to know that kind of information can’t be kept a secret. They need to seek help.”The state has launched several suicide prevention campaigns targeting different demographic areas. ‘Pretty alarming’Although Eagle County does not track the number of suicides in the valley, an Eagle County CARES Survey, taken in the fall of 2003, showed that 17 percent of surveyed high school girls have attempted suicide, as have seven percent of the boys. Although 82.7 percent of Eagle County high school students polled said they felt hopeful about the future, 24 percent indicated they have felt so depressed they have contemplated suicide. And, in 2004 and in 1996, there were documented adolescent suicides in Eagle County.”Those statistics are pretty alarming,” said Anne Leavitt, school counselor for 11th and 12th graders at Eagle Valley High School.Eagle County’s kids seem to be happy, well adjusted and able to cope with most problems they encounter, local experts say. Nearly 82 percent of high school students questioned in the Eagle County CARES Survey believe they have good qualities and 78 percent have an overall positive attitude toward themselves.But not all area adolescents have an upbeat self-image. The Eagle County CARES Survey also showed that nearly 23 percent “feel useless at times,” and 17.5 percent think, ‘I am no good at all.’Beth Reilly, services coordinator for the Eagle River Youth Coalition, which conducted the survey, confirmed that Western Slope counties do have the highest rate of suicides. “In Eagle County, the rate for teenage suicide is (less) than the state rate. However, the state has taken interest in our area because of the high attempt rate,” she said.Although the survey concluded adult and adolescent suicide is low in Eagle County, the area has the fourth highest rate in the state of major depression and second highest for psychiatric illness.Coalition for kidsThe first Eagle County CARES survey, conducted in 2001, produced results “so startling” on teen suicide and depression, said Reilly, that the community rallied together to form the Eagle River Youth Coalition and other task forces to address youth related problems. “We were all taken aback at how many kids suffer from depression and thinking about suicide,” Leavitt said. “It prompted all of us to implement more training and got our staff on board and to work with the kids.”The Eagle River Youth Coalition is actually an outgrowth of the Eagle River Family Center’s Youth Coalition subcommittee. The Coalition was formed as a collaborative effort between Eagle County’s Health and Human Services’ department, the Vail Valley Leadership Forum, area hospitals, schools and mental health professionals. “We were all peaking at the same time and it really gave an impetus to form a single coalition,” said Kathleen Forinash, director of Eagle County’s Health and Human Services Department.A suicide and depression task force commissioned a further study and implemented training for professionals.Between February and November of 2002, the Group for Community Action Research and Evaluation had students interview 40 of their peers at the local high schools. The report found that 24 percent of the respondents had thought of suicide once or twice, while 16 percent thought of suicide ‘all the time.’ One researcher said most of her subjects “had attempted suicide at least once; half had attempted it several times.” All these respondents were being questioned because they had had experiences with depression or suicide.Why suicide?What drives an otherwise healthy young teen to contemplate suicide?The peer survey concluded social or peer influences, along with unrealistic peer expectations, poor body image and social isolation – as well as academic pressure, drug or alcohol use and unrealistic parental expectations – all contribute to teen depression.Kasey Stanish, school counselor at Eagle Valley Middle School, said she is lucky to work at a “happy school” where teachers are caring and watchful and students feel encouraged to come to them with problems. Most students’ problems are typical of the age, involving friend or self-esteem troubles that, when given the proper coping skills, are readily handled. “Once they get the help they need to help themselves, they can handle things that could otherwise send them into depression,” said Stanish, who has taught in the district’s middle schools for 23 years.Still, she added, schools do deal with kids who suffer from depression and its symptoms.When a student is identified with depression, Leavitt said, school counselors make assessments to determine the severity and then may call in other professional help. “We have on-call people through Colorado Mental Health to work with people, and for intervention,” Leavitt explains. Parents are always notified when depression or suicidal thinking is involved.The county also contracts with community and mental health professionals to ensure area youth have access to professional help, when needed. “There is a lot that is very positive that is going on to address the issues our youth our facing,” said Forinash. “The way we present good results is when we join hands, collaborate and address the issues.”Holly Woods of the Cares Group said she is concerned teen depression and suicide risk is starting so much younger. “We are seeing a whole lot more middle schools reporting episodes of depression and suicide,” she said. Stanish doesn’t deny that there is more depression at the middle school level today than when she first started working there, but said that part of it is sheer numbers, and part is better awareness. “I think one of the reasons we may be seeing more of it now is we are identifying it more now and we have a bigger population,” Stanish said. She added that school staff and students are more aware of the problem, too. “That’s a good thing,” said Stanish.Confusing choicesStanish said middle school is a period of awakening, as well as of growth and development, which can cause confusion. “There is a new awareness of where kids fit in or where they don’t fit in the world. That is a good thing, but if they are aware of not fitting in, that can cause doubt,” said Stanish. Kids today have far more choices to make than they did 12 or 15 years ago, when Stanish’s kids were in school, she said. Instead of just two or three groups to try to fit in with at school, there may be a dozen, from “jocks” to “goths,” and everything in-between. Then there is the issue of drug and alcohol abuse. “If I had to say, the biggest chance of committing suicide is more based on drugs, alcohol and a state of depression,” Stanish said. She said there is more trafficking and more availability than ever before. “Once kids get into risky behaviors, it causes kids to search for ways out – particularly at the high school level,” Stanish said.By 12th grade, the Eagle County CARES Survey reports, 48.5 percent of students polled had tried marijuana while 83 percent said they had used alcohol. The overall use for all age groups is 55 percent, which is less than national average of 75 percent.”To me, a pretty significant factor is alcohol and drug use – it’s a huge piece,” Leavitt said. The good news is that, at the middle school level, students are more likely to tell an adult of alcohol use, Stanish said . But, she added, in high school it is harder to detect. “They shut down,” and some parents shrug it off even when informed, or condone it with the attitude, “I survived it,” she said. Mountain stressWoods theorizes that depression is so high in Eagle County because people who have issues tend to move to places where they hope their problems will go away – or to an area they feel will better help them cope. Sometimes such a move helps; other times, Woods said, problem behaviors can be enhanced.”Studies show that people with bipolar issues move to places where they can’t continue their high risk behavior. People with depression move to places with a lot of sunshine,” Woods said. Teens trying to deal with parental depression can become stressed out as well. “It becomes harder to cope with the stress. Depression is a pretty hard thing to live with.” The high cost of living also can add to family stress. All too often, said Stanish, she sees frazzled parents at parent-teacher conferences – parents who are trying their best to be good parents, but are working late and often stressed out. “I think that contributes a little for emotional problems,” she says.Some parents expect too much of children, academically and in the area responsibility. Some teens hold down jobs as well, or take care of their siblings. High school students also have the pressure of college and career choices pending.”They still need to know parents still have that same wonderful feelings about them as they did at elementary school,” said Stanish. “At school, I am always telling (parents) students can’t take on too much responsibility.”The good news is that 48 percent of high school students surveyed said they did feel there was an adult at school that cared about them and 54.5 percent said they felt they could turn to their family for help. In fact, Stanish said parents are usually the ones to bring a child’s depression to the school’s attention. “Everyone is much more open about it,” she said. “Basically,” Leavitt added, “kids have to learn not to keep concerns a secret, but to let someone, an adult, know about that so they can respond.”SYMPTOMS OF SUICIDAL THINKING• Crying often, or exhibiting significant changes in behavior, appearance or personality.• Decreased energy and loss of interest in usual activities, work, hobbies or social interactions.• Increased self-criticism and displays of worthlessness, shame, guilt or self-hatred.• Engaging in risk behavior, such as drug or alcohol abuse, reckless or drunk driving, and sexual promiscuity.• An inability to concentrate, failing grades or disruptive behavior.• Talking, writing or hinting about suicide and/or a preoccupation with death.• Giving away possessions, a sudden intense interest in wills or life insurance; calling people to say good-bye.• Changes in appetites or sleeping patterns.Dates to Note• International Yellow Ribbon Suicide Awareness and Prevention Week is Sept. 19-25; http://www.yellowribbon.org.• National Depression Screening Day is Oct. 7 http://www.mhacolorado.org• The Colorado Society of School Psychologists in Beaver Creek, Nov. 4-6.• The American Association of Suicidology’s annual Conference, April 13-16, 2005 in Broomfield.For more information about the Eagle River Youth Coalition or the Eagle County CARES Survey, contact Beth Reilly at (970) 827-5411.


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