Young people talk to peers to prevent suicide

In 1960, the suicide rate for young people aged 15 to 24 was 5.2 per 100,000; in 1983 that figure had more than doubled to 11.9 per 100,000, according to the National Center for Health Statistics in Washington, D.C. Year-by-year figures showed a peak of 13.3 suicides per 100,000 for that age group in 1977, with a gradual leveling off to the '83 figures (the latest data available). Concern for this problem has fostered the relatively new approach of peer counseling among teens in an attempt to stem the suicide rate.

This handsome, soft-spoken high school senior from a suburb of New Orleans could have become one of the thousands of American teen-agers who have taken their own lives. He thought about suicide and even attempted it once.

But he was deterred. The cons of committing suicide, he explains, came to outweigh the pros. It wasn't an easy point to arrive at. A key to getting there, he says, came when two close friends, fellow students, sat down with him and talked for a solid seven hours. They helped him realize that suicide is in fact a ``selfish thing to do,'' something that would deeply hurt people he loved.

A sense of perspective gradually came back into his life. The feeling of confusion, that ``everything's on top of you,'' left. What remained, he says, was a realization that he could help others, too. This young man, whose family asked that he remain anonymous, is now very active in his school's peer counseling program aimed at preventing teen suicides.

He worked with adviser Phil Gugliuzza of Grace King High School in Metairie, La., to organize a ``rap room'' where students can meet during their lunch hours and talk things out. The teen-aged counselors who work in the rap room -- actually a larger area partitioned into small rooms -- are given training that includes a knowledge of professional help available outside the school. The response of students to calls for volunteers to staff the program? ``Lots of enthusiasm,'' says Mr. Gugliuzza.

In fact, ``so many wanted to get involved, we had to turn them away,'' says this longtime student activities director. That's evidence, he adds, that teen-agers are beginning to realize ``we really are our brother's keeper.'' From his perspective, the rap room has been ``extremely effective.''

Many professionals in suicide prevention would probably agree. The Rev. Steve Olson, with the Institutes of Religion and Health in New York, says the crucial thing is to get young people to reassess their concepts of friendship. ``Adolescents tend to be very secretive with friends about everything,'' he notes. But when it comes to suicidal tendencies, being a good friend demands that one ``blow the whistle, not keep the secret.''

In getting teens involved in helping peers, he adds, ``I tend to use the principle of Christian community'' -- that individuals are ``not created to be isolated,'' but have a profound responsibility to help others.

There's no question that peer counseling works, according to Alan Berman, a psychologist with the American Association of Suicidology. Its primary effectiveness, he says, springs from the fact that ``it's a peer to whom a student will first turn.'' In his view, however, talking with other teens is not in itself the solution, but rather is a key means of turning a youth away from suicide and toward professional help.

Gary Borgeson, who works with the Jefferson County schools in Colorado, has seen peer counseling programs spread nationwide over the 10 years he's been involved with them. He has trained some 250 counselors and says that on average about 90 teens -- juniors in high school -- apply for the program each year in his district. Of those, 18 will be selected for training.

What are the criteria for selecting those few? Mr. Borgeson says he looks first for ``someone who I would trust,'' someone who is ``perceptive'' and ``well- rounded,'' and someone ``who's been committed to something before,'' perhaps through church or community work. Peer counselors also tend to be students who have maintained a high grade average, he notes, for the very practical reason that they may be called out of class at any time should someone need help.

Ben Bowen, now a high school teacher in Aurora, Colo., was among the first students to go through the Jefferson County training program. He remembers the initial time he sat down to counsel a fellow student. ``I felt real competent -- I really did. I knew I had a support network there if needed,'' he says, emphasizing the rigor of the training he'd been through. ``It's a real good feeling,'' he adds, commenting on peer counseling generally, ``a great way to channel some of that youthful energy.''

Mr. Borgeson's program deals with the gamut of teen problems -- alcohol abuse, drug use, and teen pregnancy, as well as suicide. But when it comes to suicide, he's convinced that the ``No. 1 prevention . . . is having someone to talk to.''

And as that very thoughtful 18-year-old from Louisiana points out, the conversation has to be ``mainly positive.'' He often asks his peers, ``Why do you want to live?'' and ``Why don't you want to live?'' ``Most of the time,'' he says, ``the `dos' outweigh the `don'ts.' After they say one thing bad, try to think about five things that are good.'' He smiles and adds, ``It kind of helps out.''

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