STORY BY DANIEL BLACKBURN
He was only 17 when, on a dreary afternoon last September, the Atascadero youth decided to die.
He was active in many sports and clubs. He seemed, to most observers, a perfectly happy young man. But he kept his deepening anguish within, hidden from those who knew him best.
Filled with despair, the young man described as bright, creative, talented, and sensitive plotted a course of action he thought would ease the constant turmoil with which he lived. On a Thursday, less than a month after classes had started, the youngster took a massive overdose of Benadryl and dropped off into oblivion.
With its usual suddenness and irreversible finality, suicide involving a teenager had once more rumpled the comfortable social texture of San Luis Obispo County. And yet another family prepared to deal with a lifetime of indescribable emotional pain and unending recrimination.
"I can't tell you the number of kids who have said to me, 'I just want to go to sleep and never wake up,'" said Terry Lassiter, district counselor for Paso Robles Public Schools, who has logged 20 years in the teen trenches.
"So many young people have these overwhelming feelings," she said. "They have a problem, they think it's the end of the world."
The North County appears to be particularly vulnerable to the disquieting phenomenon of youthful self-destruction.
During the past five years, at least seven North County teenagers are known to have taken their own lives.
In the past several months alone, two known suicides and three deaths classified as fatal drug overdoses involving teenagers have been reported in the northern county, said San Luis Obispo County Deputy Coroner Steve Harris. And three other people in their early 20s from north of The Grade have taken their own lives during the same period.
There may be more than these. Other young people have died in automobile "accidents" and of "indeterminate causes" which are never formally noted as suicides . but in reality are.
Despite the apparent acceleration of teen suicide in SLO County, little is said about it in the popular media. Though it's not something widely discussed, suicide has become the 21st century teenage plague, responsible for taking more young lives than any other cause, save accidents and homicide.
Suicides among young people tend to be hushed up. And openly discussing the issue raises fears that other distraught teens will gravitate to suicide as a solution to their problems.
Despite strongly embedded social taboos against openly discussing suicide, the subject is receiving, albeit gradually, more attention by those who might make a difference.
Paso Robles' Lassiter, for one, said the issue must be addressed head-on.
"The more discussion about the subject, the better," she said. "We have become very proactive regarding this."
Paso Robles school officials are indeed following their own dictates by establishing a forum for keeping the issue of teen suicide out in the open.
Following the gunshot suicide of a North County ninth grader six years ago, counselors in the district became involved in a national effort called the "Yellow Ribbon Suicide Prevention Program," said Lassiter.
To accomplish objectives of the program, a group of high school students enrolled in a "peer communications" class are trained to recognize the signs and symptoms of deep depression and pending suicide.
"They learn to recognize at-risk behavior," said Lassiter of the peer panel, which does small-group presentations for all of the school's 2,000 students as well as the entire faculty. After completing the sessions, students are asked to wear small yellow ribbons as a sign of their awareness of the potential threat of depression and suicide.
"It's been huge," she said of the program's success. "The peers are listeners, not counselors."
When a suicide occurs, said Lassiter, the school swings into immediate action.
"We drop everything," she said of her fellow counselors, "and usually ask for help from other districts. We make a notification to all teachers, and they in turn discuss it in class to the extent possible. Affected students can go to either the library or to the Student Resource Center, where professional counselors are available. And we let their families know that their kids are distraught, hurting."
Young people, once disinclined to "narc," or tell, on a friend who might be expressing a desire to harm himself or herself, are now learning that reporting their concerns is far better than learning of a friend's suicide, said Lassiter.
Brad Sunseri, clinical health manager for children's services for the county's Mental Health Services, is chairing a panel charged with the responsibility of "exploring youth suicide prevention strategies."
Sunseri, who said he is very concerned about the recent North County suicides, agreed that discussing the problem will help prevent future emergencies.
It's an encouraging indication.
Each year in America, more than 5,000 young people, ages 15 to 24, take their own lives, according to the National Mental Health Association. The rate of suicide among this age group has nearly tripled since 1960. In 1999, youths committed 13.4 percent of the 29,199 suicides in the United States.
Nationally, a youngster takes his or her own life every 100 minutes. In Los Angeles County, the rate is one a day. And for every successful suicide, there are as many as 100 failed attempts.
According to a September 2003 People magazine article, the number of kids 10 to 14 who commit suicide has doubled over the past two decades, now accounting for more than 300 deaths a year. Even more shocking, some children as young as 5 years old have died at their own hand.
Yet for all of its prominence, suicide among young people remains a subject replete with taboo, and as a result is little discussed publicly.
The argument goes that details of a suicide that end up in a newspaper contribute to subsequent-or copycat-suicide.
This is the "Werther Effect," after Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's 1774 novel "The Sorrows of Young Werther," in which the hero shoots himself in the head. Soon thereafter an outbreak of similar suicides occurred throughout Europe, and as a consequence the book was banned in much of the continent.
There is a solid, fact-based foundation for the idea of imitation suicides. Marilyn Monroe's 1962 suicide contributed to a 12 percent rise in suicides nationally the following month.
Mark J. Miller, in an article titled "Tough Calls" in the December 2002 American Journalism Review, wrote:
"Critics of suicide coverage often point to possible imitation as their chief concern. While they understand that reporters sometimes need to write about suicides, social scientists would like the media not to include much detail, particularly information on how the person killed himself or herself, and stay away from splashy play-two aspects of coverage that could contribute to copycats."
Columbia University's Madelyn Gould was a co-author of "Reporting on Suicide: Recommendations for the Media," prepared under the auspices of the American Association of Suicidology, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and the Annenberg Public Policy Center, in August 2001.
Gould noted: "Anything that captures your reader is probably what makes the story potentially harmful. The more personal and detailed it gets, the more a reader can relate to it and see him or herself within that story. That's where the danger lies."
The Rev. Dennis Gilbert, pastor of Cambria's Santa Rosa Church, who headed a group called Child Advocates in San Luis Obispo and Monterey counties for nearly half of his 35-year priesthood, said thoughts of suicide among people of all ages are common.
"I have asked this question many times to adult groups," he said, "and always half are willing to admit they have had such thoughts, usually more than once. And if that many people will admit it openly, how many really have had these thoughts? This is probably why many people are so reluctant to discuss the subject."
Gilbert, who has taught both elementary and high school, insisted that discussion is one big key to diminishing the disturbing trend of increasing youth suicide.
"The statistics have shown clearly that talking about suicide doesn't cause it," he said. "People who have been thinking about it usually will readily admit it. Particularly young people. They want to talk, because anything is better than being quiet. They feel trapped. But making it an issue is vital . making it something that is brought up and discussed openly, uncomfortable or not.
"Talking about it doesn't make it happen. Not talking about it does. Don't ask, don't tell? Someone will be dead," he said.
Substance abuse, both alcohol and drugs, and uncertain feelings of sexuality are two huge contributing factors in teen suicides, said Gilbert.
"It may be cloaked as self-medication," said Gilbert, "but substance abuse raises the likelihood of self-inflicted death multiple times."
He said the issue of homosexuality ties closely to self-destructive actions by teens.
Being called "queer" or "gay" is considered a major trauma by most youngsters, Gilbert added.
"At these ages, self-image is very important," he said. "And that seems to be the slur that hurts most kids the most."
Apparently teen sexuality and its relationship to suicide is a new area of study.
"It is just now beginning to be dealt with," Gilbert said. "With these kids, according to the statistics, more than one in three will try suicide. And some studies say it could be as high as 70 percent."
However, he added, the subject "is one of those things that families, counselors, and peers still don't feel free to talk about, or deal with."
Gilbert insisted that schools must deal with the issue more openly.
"Crisis teams are fine. But there must be more. Students and teachers need to know that there is a high likelihood that everybody will reach some crisis during their high school years."
Gilbert thinks the actual number of teen suicides might be much higher than reported.
"Car accidents are the number-one cause of death among young people. How many of those car accidents are really suicidal," he wondered. "How many kids are thinking, 'I don't care if I live or die'? Was it a drag race, or suicide? Why do teenagers take those risks? Sometimes they would rather just not face life."
Deputy coroner Harris agreed that suicidal feelings among youngsters increase when friends or acquaintances commit suicide.
"When friends commit suicide, other friends might become reckless. They wonder, 'What's the use?'" said Harris.
Author Dolly Lee, writing on a web site she established after her son Jared was teased into a severe state of depression by classmates, suggested parents "need to talk to their child about standing up for other children who are being bullied. Don't let the bullies take over our schools."
Lee noted that "all children need guidance. Don't sweep this problem under the rug," she pleaded. "Don't pretend it's not in your community. It is here. It is real. And it is serious. The problem will not disappear unless we all work together."
That's not always as easy to accomplish as it is to intone, said Gilbert.
"Teenagers, as opposed to thinking of themselves as part of a family, tend to be very secretive, so those around them need to watch for the signs. And that won't always be easy, because you are not going to see that they are running with a strange group, for example, because they are not going to show you. There is always that pact of secrecy."
Secrecy can be overcome.
"If suicide is talked about openly, it is more likely that the problem will surface, and someone who is close will say something. If it is not talked about, it is more likely that that person will die. School officials and parents need to take action, rather than wait and see if there's a problem. If they wait and see, they'll do it at a burial," said Gilbert.
Jayma Newland, a director in the Education Services Division of the County Office of Education, said that suicide prevention is a priority for county schools.
"There is no such thing as a school alone," she said. Newland heads a "partnership and prevention" program for county schools, and believes the issue should be addressed openly.
"We try to bring in community partners," Newland said.
When a youngster takes his or her own life, a system is in place in every school district to deal with the matter up front, she said.
"Everyone has concern for the family, of course, and for other students and teachers. It is important for teachers to know how to get the word out, to quell rumors and to give the right information about what is going on."
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), which represents more than 6,900 child and adolescent psychiatrists, suggests that threats be taken seriously.
"If a child or adolescent says, 'I want to kill myself,' or 'I'm going to commit suicide,' always take the statement seriously and seek evaluation from a child and adolescent psychiatrist or other physician," the AACAP urges on its web site.
"People often feel uncomfortable talking about death. However, asking the child or adolescent whether he or she is depressed or thinking about suicide can be helpful. Rather than 'putting thoughts in the child's head,' such a question will provide assurance that somebody cares and will give the young person the chance to talk about problems. If one or more of these signs occurs, parents need to talk to their child about their concerns and seek professional help when the concerns persist. With support from family and professional treatment, children and teenagers who are suicidal can heal and return to a healthy environment."
There are other signs of the potential for committing suicide (see box, "Classic suicide signs").
According to the AACAP, putting one's affairs in order, such as giving or throwing away favorite belongings, is a strong clue:
"Any history of previous suicide attempts is also reason for concern and watchfulness. Approximately one-third of teens who die by suicide have made a previous suicide attempt."
Gilbert concludes: "Part of the problem is that parents don't want to uncover the wound they don't want to find out about. 'What is this kid troubled about?' they wonder. All parents want to think of their kids as 'normal,'" he said. "But even risking being completely wrong is better than not saying anything."
Given half a chance, teens such as the Atascadero youth who overdosed on Benadryl would likely welcome the opportunity to find another way out of their problems. ³
News Editor Daniel Blackburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Arts Editor Brandi Stansbury can be reached at email@example.com.