Efforts grow in US to prevent teen suicides. Some youths learning how to recognize problems, help their peers
Los Angeles — ``Hello, I need someone to talk to.'' ``You can talk to me.''
``I don't know where to start. Everything's been going wrong.''
``You feel confused...?
``My parents are on my case to apply to college. I don't want to go. My friends have all been accepted. They're changing; I don't feel close to anyone anymore.''
In a mock conversation between a potential teen-age suicide victim and a teen-age telephone help-line volunteer, two California youths here demonstrate techniques to help identify possible suicide victims and stop the act before it takes place.
The conversation was part of a two-day conference here last week attended by 2,000 teen-agers from throughout California, cosponsored by the California Peer Counseling Association, the California State Department of Education, and the Los Angeles County Office of Education.
Of 50 workshops given over two days to train teen-age peer counselors on topics from pregnancy prevention to drug and child abuse, those with the largest attendance - they were packed, in fact - concerned teen-age depression and suicide.
``I came to hear how to identify someone who's so depressed they want to kill themselves,'' said Shawna Allen, a 13-year-old from Simons Junior High in Pomona.
Jody McAuliffe, also 13, said: ``A lot of kids at our school have problems with their parents and want to run away. Sometimes they talk about suicide. We want to know what to say to them.''
Two occurrences last week drew renewed national attention to the problem of youth suicide. Four young people - two males and two females - died together in New Jersey, and two young women in their upper teens committed suicide together in Illinois.
Teen suicide has for some time been a matter of major concern among parents, educators, sociologists, researchers, and youth counselors across the country.
The suicide rate began to climb rapidly in 1960 and leveled off in 1979 after escalating by 260 percent in that period. In that year about 19 out of 100,000 youths aged 15 to 24 took their own lives.
Suicide prevention specialists see no prospect of a significant drop in the rate.
``The peak has passed, but the major point to remember is that the actual rate is phenomenally high compared with 20 years ago,'' says Dr. Norman Farberow, director of the Los Angeles Suicide Prevention Center (LASPC).
His statistics show that suicide rates among 15- to 19-year-olds rose from 3.6 per 100,000 in 1960 to 11.9 per 100,000 in 1970 but has since dropped to 8.3, or about 6,000 a year. The figure is potentially much higher, he adds, because of the stigma of reporting a suicide.
``Many self-inflicted deaths are reported as accidents,'' he explains.
Frank Nelson, director of training for LASPC, fires off a half-dozen reasons for long-term suicide-rate increases, documented in both recent studies and those of a decade ago.
These include conflicts in the family - exacerbated by lack of communication, as well as alcohol and drug abuse; higher divorce rates since 1960; and economic pressures on the traditional family resulting in two parents working.
Those in turn result in more latchkey children, pressure for women to become ``supermoms'' - and more pressures on schools to fill in for lack of full-time parents. ``It is also hard to document this,'' says Dr. Nelson, ``but I think children aren't as valued today as they were in previous generations.''
Besides increased participation at events such as last week's ``Teen Hotline'' seminars, experts say, activity on behalf of suicide awareness is burgeoning.
``There is an all-out nationwide effort to educate counselors, principals, teachers - even school nurses - on how to identify these [potential victims],'' says Dr. Rudolf Hahnloser, senior psychologist at Phoenix Camelback Hospital, who recently cochaired a statewide conference for that very purpose.
Dr. Hahnloser will teach such a class this summer aimed at those people he says have most contact with children outside the home.
``But schools at this point don't know what to do, either before or after the fact,'' he says.
``Most important is the outlet to talk. Youth must have access to adults that know how to avert the problems, deal with the confusion.''
He says the New Jersey high school attended by the recent victims should have widespread counseling available for friends of the deceased to express their feelings and fears.
Studies have shown a high correlation between well-publicized suicides and dramatic, short-term increases of subsequent suicides. ``It would be wrong, though, to have a schoolwide assembly, which could unconsciously glorify their [the victims'] actions,'' he said.
In 1983, the California Legislature established suicide prevention in the schools by mandating a pilot program for junior and high schools statewide. Over years of trial and error, a fourfold curriculum has been developed, presented mostly through existing health education classes.
The program - including staff development workshops, practical guides for administrators, and voluntary parental participation - is being used by about 30 schools, with 100 more to join the program by fall.
According to Michael Peck, the psychologist in charge, students are taught how to understand depression and stress.
They are also advised that alcohol and drugs - widely held as panaceas - only make matters worse. The students are taught techniques to help friends in dire circumstances.
School staff members and parents are taught how to identify victims. And administrators are taught how the school might react formally, including how to deal with the news media.
In a poll conducted upon partial completion of the program, respondents said they felt a total of 42 suicides had been averted in one year.
But Dr. Peck and Nelson say there are a number of hurdles before the program is more widely accepted.
Some school officials say the program does not belong in the schools, already struggling to teach the basic curriculum adequately. Some parents are concerned about the attention given the subject in peer group situations, feeling that such a program should be carried on at a more intimate level in the family sphere.
``And then there are the special-interest groups - minorities, religionists, legislators,'' Nelson says, ``each with its own concerns.''
He calls for a nationwide spirit of compromise and negotiation. ``The lawmakers, parents, school boards, and welfare agencies of this country are going to have to come to some consensus about what we're going to do with the young in trouble.''
Legislation proposed by US Rep. Gary Ackerman (D) of New York would authorize federal grants of up to $100,000 for suicide-prevention projects in schools. It would be funded at $1 million in its first year.
Another area of suicide research receiving attention in recent years is that of special populations, such as handicapped or gifted children.
Arlene Metha, an associate professor in the division of psychology and education at Arizona State University in Tempe, has found loopholes in the published works of early researchers such as Lewis Terman in the 1930s. Those works held that gifted students - those who excelled at academics - were largely exempt, owing to superior coping and behavioral skills, from the pressures that lead to suicide.
But a recent study conducted by Dr. Metha in a Phoenix junior high school showed that 15 percent of those considered gifted had contemplated suicide in the past year, compared with 21 percent in a control group of ``regular'' students.
``This shows we need to take a closer look at all groups of teen-agers and examine our premises about who is more vulnerable,'' she says.
Metha and other researchers, as well as parents and school personnel, seem to agree on at least one point about teen suicide: Its high incidence rate can be symptomatic of other things - troubles in workplace, school, and home.