“I learned this information in the worst way possible,” admitted Annette Craig, whose high-achieving daughter took her own life in 2005.
At a workshop attended this week by about 150 parents, Craig, founder of a teen-suicide prevention foundation in Placentia, disgorged the hard won wisdom and described clues she overlooked and questions to probe a subject uncomfortable for most.
Her husband made a similar presentation on recognizing signs of the pain-inducing depression that leads to suicide to Laguna Beach High School staff and students earlier in the week. The talk prompted four students to come forward in the previous 48 hours, she said.
“It’s an illness; it can be treated,” said Craig, who cited statistics showing that two-thirds of people with depression go untreated due in part to stigma over seeking mental health help.
A cluster of suicides by four young adults and two parents in the last 12 months prompted the workshop, principal Chris Herzfeld said. “That’s a lot. Any is too many.”
In addition, school psychologists are seeing an upswing in social and emotional problems among mainstream students at every grade level, Irene White, the school district’s special education director, said in an earlier interview. The district plans to hire another fulltime psychologist midyear, assigning two to each campus. “We’re doing a lot, but I have to be honest, we need more,” she said.
The workshop comes as a relief to some who work with teens and are dismayed by the lack of visibility for suicide-prevention resources in town and the community’s reluctance to discuss a still-taboo topic.
“We’ve got to get over the stigma of mental health,” White agreed. Too often though, she sees parents shrugging off advice for counseling for their children, dismissing changes in behavior as normal development. “I was just like that and I turned out just fine,” White said, parroting what she hears frequently from student guardians.
Craig did her best to refute that attitude, saying that today’s teens shoulder anxiety in a more competitive culture accelerated by the often wounding impact of social media. Letters by her daughter Amber revealed her internal angst to remain a star in class, on the social scene and the soccer pitch. “We’ve taken the ordinary child and asked them to be extraordinary,” Craig said, urging parents to “let them take their foot off the throttle.”
Professionals outline a range of risk factors and warning signs in teen suicide: divorce, a parent’s job loss, grief, substance abuse, cyber-bullying, disengaging from activities, depression, a drop in grades, a change of friends or behavior.
“If there is more than one of those, they need counseling,” urged Kay Ostensen, a former school psychologist now in private practice in Newport Beach. “We need to all speak up; where there is smoke, there is fire,” Ostensen said, echoing a sentiment Craig reiterated: don’t keep secret a confession threatening self-harm or a baffling temperament change.
“Our kids are going to know what’s going on and we need their help,” said Craig, adding that her daughter’s friends knew of her previous suicide attempt but didn’t share their knowledge.
A recent blog post by Little Church by the Sea youth pastor Sam Ellis about teen suicide has elicited an outpouring of concern. “My objective is to give resources to kids on campus,” said Ellis. “Kids are saying ‘where do I go’?”
Ellis expects to take ideas that emerge from a meeting with parents next week and seek help from the Laguna Beach Coalition, a group of school, health and law enforcement representatives initially organized to deal with youth drug and alcohol issues.
A similar suicide cluster four years ago in San Clemente resulted in the creation of a mental-health wellness center embedded in the 3,200-student high school.
“It gives kids services where they are,” said social worker Susan Parmelee, who sees students referred by teachers and those suspended for substance abuse as well as self-referrals and kids who report friends. “It’s one of the scariest things about being a health professional; you know you’ll miss something.”
Many students are seen over eight sessions, but Parmelee often recommends they seek private help as well. “It’s often the adults who are the barrier to getting them therapists,” she said.
If adults shun counseling due to its social stigma, that’s doubly true for suicide, but the consequence perpetuates rather halts what one father calls an “epidemic.”
“People don’t know how to talk about it,” said Laguna father Alan Cook, whose son Ethan took his own life last December. “I break the ice. They don’t have the courage to ask me how I’m doing.”
Cook hopes an energized community will tap into existing resources to nurture more resiliency to trauma among teens to prevent any more deaths. “But we have to overcome the community’s willingness to engage with it,” Cook said.
This week’s presentations proved a start.
Insights from another affluent, high-expectation town with a teen suicide cluster: Palo Alto.