Preventing teen suicide

Let's not ask why - no answer comes - instead, let's study how We can prevent their useless deaths. Let mankind do it now.m

These words were written by Iris Bolton after her son, Mitch, shot and killed himself at age 20.

Now Mrs. Bolton is director of the Link Counseling Center in Atlanta. She and her organization help youths who say they may have considered taking their own lives, as well as family members left behind after a suicide.

Ninety percent of youth suicides can be averted, says Michael Peck, director of youth services for the Los Angeles Suicide Prevention Center. Mrs. Bolton agrees.

After her own son took his life, she felt devastated. ''I felt I'd failed my son; I felt foul to the world. I felt 'I'm the ultimate failure.' I wanted to die.''

But instead of continuing to mourn, she decided to learn from the family tragedy - not just to try to figure out why it happened, but to glean useful information to help herself and parents and school officials become aware of ways to prevent this type of tragedy among youth.

Statistics show that suicide now ranks third in the United States among reported causes of death among people under age 25. The suicide rate has tripled since 1955 in this group and is continuing to creep upward, according to the latest (1979) figures. By contrast, since 1955 the rate among older age groups has increased only slightly, or actually gone down. The teen-suicide phenomenon ranges across the whole spectrum of families, spanning income and ethnic groups.

In her own son's case, says Mrs. Bolton, she had seen ''no sign of his disconnecting,'' or falling apart. Despite the long talks she had with him, in looking back, she realizes he somehow could not communicate how troubled he was.

He was ''outgoing, attractive, popular,'' she recalls, but in high school he was also teased as being slow, because of a reading disability. In a family where his parents ''just never failed,'' he became ''a perfectionist,'' especially regarding music he wrote or played, Mrs. Bolton says. Not long before he took his life, Mitch had signed a contract to make a record. ''He wanted to be an instant star,'' but he may have feared failing, she says.

''American culture says: 'Be No. 1; succeed, don't fail; get A's, not B's; be perfect,' '' says Mrs. Bolton. ''Kids hear: 'I love you if you perform.' '' But the message should be simply ''I love you,'' she says.

Pressures - and loneliness - are among the factors most commonly cited by experts on suicide prevention. Use of alcohol or other drugs is also involved in many suicides, experts say.

New York psychiatrist Kurt Adler attributes the increased suicide rate among youth in part to increased use of drugs. California suicide-prevention specialist Michael Peck and Robert E. Litman, a physician, found that nearly half the adolescent suicides they studied involved alcohol or other drug abuse shortly before death. But, they say, suicides have many causes and the same things that made the youths unhappy enough take their own lives contributed to their drug abuse. A bright spot: Latest surveys of high school seniors show a decline in most drug use.

''We're not talking about kids who are crazy,'' says Sarah Benet, director of Project Assist in Boston, a part of the Massachusetts Committee for Children and Youth. ''They're (often) normal kids,'' she says of the typical youth suicide.

But many youths who consider or commit suicide don't feel normal, experts say. They see themselves as the weird one; the unpopular, unsuccessful one; different - and they think they are the only ones feeling that way. They often feel worthless and useless. And by themselves they can see no less-violent solution to their problems.

A key prevention approach for parents, siblings, friends, teachers, or others is not a complicated one, most specialists say.

''Let them know they're worthwhile,'' says Dr. Benet. Tell them ''You're a lovable kid - and I love you,'' she says.

More than intellectual concern is required. Genuine love, expressed, is essential, prevention specialists insist.

The need for such expression is clear in the case of Erica, now 18, who tried to take her life twice, but who is alive and well today.

''I really didn't think I was any good - and I didn't think anyone would miss me,'' she said in a telephone interview from her home in Corona, Calif.

David, now 22, also tried to take his life several times, once after breaking up with a girlfriend. ''I never really had a whole lot of friends,'' he said recently as he sat on the porch of his mother's home in Atlanta.

If someone thinking of suicide has ''someone close to them, morally upright, '' they can be talked out of it, says David. ''Usually the more you talk about it, the less likely you are to do it,'' he says.

But that's not always so, warn prevention specialists. Those who talk of it, even in indirect terms, may be at a point of high risk. But helping someone express their inner thoughts can be the first step toward backing away from the edge, experts say.

Spotting signs of distress and being there to help pull someone back from the edge of despair by talking to them, showing concern, is one way to avert suicide , experts say. Suicidal feelings can be quite temporary; though they may reoccur , getting someone to look beyond the emotional crisis of the moment can mean enabling them to go on living, they explain.

David, of Atlanta, says his sister helped convince him to seek counseling when he was feeling suicidal. And he found writing, in a sort of diary form, helped him to analyze his thoughts better, more rationally.

When Mary tried to kill herself in California, she was 18. Her parents had abandoned her at age four; later she had suffered other emotionally jarring experiences, says Marcie Burks, who founded and runs a program called Alive. This self-help, private, nonmedical program helps teenagers who have tried or planned to try to take their lives.

Ms. Burks, who had become acquainted with Mary as her high school physical education teacher, visited Mary after her suicide attempt. Ms. Burks invited her to Alive meetings. Three weeks later, Mary came, afraid it might be just youth sitting around feeling sorry for themselves. Instead, she found about a dozen teenagers, about half of whom had tried to commit suicide, sitting around a table in a community room, talking about how they were getting their lives back in order - looking ahead again. No one was obliged to talk; Mary kept quiet.

She dropped out of the group for a while. But when she tried to discuss her attempted suicide with friends or relatives, they would not listen and changed the subject. She returned to Alive. Burks recalls the night Mary came back. At first, she seemed ill at ease. ''Then she sat back and relaxed and smiled and began to open up.'' Just talking about her feelings helped her conquer her fears , Mary recalls today, a year after she tried to take her life.

Alive has ''helped me so much to understand who I am,'' she explained recently. The program, the only one of its kind this reporter came across in dozens of phone calls to many states, ''helps them (youth who had contemplated suicide) realize it doesn't have to be an option,'' says Mary.

''I've never been happier about my life, '' she says today.

Efforts to prevent suicide must begin long before a final crisis, say suicide-prevention specialists across the nation. And everyone close to the person in trouble - family, friends, and school personnel - usually can help, they add.

''You can get them over a hump and save a life,'' says Calvin Frederick, who until 1981 was in charge of federal suicide-prevention efforts at the National Institute of Mental Health.

Some 200 crisis centers and dozens of ''hot lines'' exist in the US, many of them set up to help people considering suicide. But these services usually depend on a person coming to them. More direct approaches are needed to save young lives, say many prevention specialists. These include:

* Classroom discussions of suicide-prevention techniques like the ones in San Mateo and Los Angeles Counties. Legislation has just been introduced in California by state Sen. Robert Presley (D) to fund this kind of educational program being run by private suicide-prevention centers. The Boston-area branches of the Samaritans, a nonsectarian group, lead discussions at schools on how students can help someone considering suicide.

* Training of teachers and other school personnel to help spot potential suicides. A few schools, such as Corona Senior High School in Corona, Calif., have made pamphlets on the topic available to teachers. But most schools are doing little or nothing on the issue, experts say.

* Parent education. An increasing amount of information on suicide among youth is available to parents, but ''people don't really want to deal with it,'' says Shirley Karnovsky, director of the Boston branch of the Samaritans.

In high school classrooms in San Mateo County, students hear open and frank discussion about suicide. It hits some that they are not alone.

''Their eyes get wider and wider as they realize others feel the same,'' says Charlotte Ross, executive director of the Suicide Prevention and Crisis Center of San Mateo County, which developed the program six years ago.

''Kids are hungry for someone who understands,'' she says. ''The sad thing is they're so isolated.'' Usually the students say they would not tell their teachers about suicidal feelings, but they may tell a friend in secrecy, she says. She urges students not to ''keep a secret and lose a friend.''

More help for parents is needed. Some groups, such as Alive in Corona, offer support for parents of children who have attempted suicide. New York clinical psychologist Lee Salk has this advice for parents: If your child speaks of despairing feelings and perhaps suicide, listen to him or her, rather than trying to tell the child how he or she should feel. Parental denials of such feelings are not helpful, some prevention specialists point out.

''Some parents may be meeting the material needs of (their children), but not making the emotional contact,'' he adds. ''Love has an incredibly positive human power.''

There is some disagreement over the professional help appropriate for suicidal youth. Medication is often involved in such help. Some experts agree with Atlanta family-counseling specialist Iris Bolton, who says drugs ''may mask the problem'' and are overused.

Two international suicide-prevention programs were begun by ministers - The Samaritans (begun in England in 1953) and Contact Teleministries USA (begun in Australia in 1967 and known abroad as Lifeline International). But neither group tries to persuade people to accept any particular religious beliefs or even raises the topic of God and religion unless the caller does.

''A lot of people feel abandoned by God,'' says Shirley Karnovsky, director of the Boston branch of the Samaritans. Telling a suicidal person ''God loves you,'' is reassuring. But more is needed, officials in both organizations say.

It is best to ''show people what God's love means by caring for one another, '' says Rosemary Johnston, director of the Newton, Mass., branch of Contact. ''Many of our callers ask us to pray for them,'' she says.

There is a new piano player in the Gerrard household in Fairburn, Ga.

For a while after son David shot and killed himself at age 22, the family was stunned. It took various family members varying lengths of time to recover, but now they are all going on with living.

LuAnn, the sister, has completed her master's degree in music. Mr. Gerrard the father, has continued his preflight inspection job at Delta Airlines and his love for organ music.And Mrs. Gerrard, the mother, has taken up the piano for the first time in her life.

After a youth's suicide, surviving family members often feel grief and guilt.

Families such as the Gerrards have experienced both and are moving ahead again. They are not alone in their progress or in facing the tough challenge of picking up the pieces in what seems for a while to be a shattered family life.

Many families are receiving the encouragement to go on through such groups as the Compassionate Friends, begun in England in 1969. This private, nonsectarian group now has some 335 chapters, and its headquarters are in this country, in Oak Brook, Ill. The aim of the self-help group is to give bereaved parents ''hope for the future'' through regular meetings where they can share their feelings and encourage each other, says headquarters staffer Elaine Michalek.

Two years after their son shot himself, in 1979, his parents went to their first Compassionate Friends meeting, 45 miles from their home near Atlanta. About a dozen adults in the meeting room at a church, including some who had lost children to suicide. Everyone wore name tags. ''They made you feel welcome,'' Mrs. Gerrard recalls. Remarks were considered confidential. There was no pressure for anyone to speak

At the first few meetings, Mr. Gerrard did all the talking for the family. Gradually Mrs. Gerrard also spoke up. ''Where you are -- have been,'' she says of the members of the group. ''It gave me a comfortable place to go and share my feelings,'' she says.

LuAnn put the issue of her brother's death ''on the back burner'' for a couple of years after it occurred. ''I wish I'd dealt with it at the time,'' she says now. She has since completed her undergraduate and graduate degrees and is now looking for a job.

''The hardest thing of a suicide is to be a survivor,'' says Mrs. Gerrard. ''You have to go through the guilt.'' But you must also go beyond it, say she and others who have been through it.

For other survivors she suggests: ''Try to get as many beautiful things as you can in your life - music, flowers. . . . ''

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