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Teen Suicide – is there ever an answer?

 By Stephen C. Schultz

(Caution: This post contains graphic and frank discussion of suicide and the implications it has on others. If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255)

The morning sun was glistening through the window as it peeked over the snow tipped mountains. The left side of my face was warm and I could feel my heartbeat in my cheek. Sage brush and fence posts pulsed by in a rhythmic blur. The consistent whine of tires on the freeway surface was sporadically broken by the “thump/thump” of tarred cracks in the road.

On any given day this would be my favorite time. Mornings bring with them not only the beauty of a new dawn, but the hope for a better day than yesterday. However, I already knew how this day was going to turn out.

This day was going to be filled with sadness and tears. There would be questions of “why” and thoughtful efforts to make sense of it all even though there are no answers. There would be mourning with good friends and a sense of closeness with total strangers. I knew I would have heartache for my friend. I also knew I would feel a twinge of guilt that I’m relieved it’s not me that is suffering through the loss of my teenage son.

Suicide is a heartbreaking phenomenon. As parents, we wonder what could be so bad that a teen, with their whole life ahead of them, would choose to take their own life. What was the thought process the person goes through? How did they think suicide was the solution that would make things better? Did they think about the ramifications and emotional toll it takes on family and friends?

As an addictions counselor and someone who has worked in the mental health field for over 25 years, I have yet to be able to answer the above questions. I have been associated with more families than I care to count who have suffered through the anguish of a family member attempting to, or succeeding in taking their own life. As I have witnessed this situation over the years, there are some patterns around suicide that I have noticed. While the end result is always the same, the pathway to suicide is often as diverse as the people involved. Please allow me to share some experiences that I hope will shed some light on this very sad and dark topic.

Bobs Story

Bob was in his late twenties. He had been suffering from Schizophrenia for about eight years. He regularly had auditory as well as visual hallucinations. The paranoia was a constant battle and he was not consistent in taking his medication. Bob had been a good student and an even better athlete in high school. He had participated in church activities and seemed to have a positive outlook for life. Now, at 28, Bob hated that he had schizophrenia. With supportive parents and still living at home, Bob remembered those good teenage years. He couldn't bear the thought of living the rest of his life dealing with this mental illness. Bob went into the bathroom, sat in the tub and proceeded to push a kitchen butcher knife into his chest.

Karen’s Story

Karen was 17. She lived in an affluent neighborhood and her parents were quite successful. She got average grades and seemed to have more acquaintances at school than actual friends. At the early age of five, Karen was inappropriately touched by a teenage male cousin at a family gathering. Karen struggled to have close friends and demonstrated anger early on. At 12, her parents noticed some scabs on her arms and promptly had her seeing an outpatient counselor for issues of cutting and self harm. By 15, Karen had participated in sexually promiscuous behavior with a number of boys from school. At 16, she did have a more steady relationship with a boy, but she was extremely jealous if he went out with friends instead of spending time with her. She would often call to see where he was or who he was with.

When her boyfriend broke up with her, she went into her room, closed the door and took 35 Tylenol. Then Karen called her boyfriends cell phone. She left a message that she couldn't live without him. She called again, he didn't pick up and she left yet another message. A few minutes later she texted him reiterating the fact she could not live without him. Her boyfriend told his parents, and they in turn called Karen’s parents who were away at a fundraising event. Karen’s parents rushed home and found her unresponsive on her bed. They called 911, but Karen was pronounced dead in the local hospital emergency room 30 minutes later.

Justin’s Story

By the time he was 17, Justin had been involved with the law on numerous occasions. When he was 9, his parents divorced. By the time he was 12, he was hanging out with the “wrong” crowd. His first beer was at 13 and he smoked his first joint the same night. He always seemed to be in a fight with someone. If it wasn’t a fist fight with a kid at school, it was a constant argument with his mom at home. By the end of his 16th year he had traffic violations as well as “open container” issues. He was attending a court ordered class Wednesday evenings for two months.

Justin had an open beer between his thighs when he looked in the rear view mirror and saw the flashing lights.  He took off through the intersection accelerating to about 80mph. The officer was in pursuit, lights flashing and siren blaring. Justin headed down the old highway and slid sideways as he entered an abandoned sand and gravel quarry. There was a small stream running along the back end of the property and a large Cottonwood tree that was pushing 100 yrs old. He hit the gas pedal with his foot and headed straight towards the old tree. At the last second, he turned the wheel hard to the left and the car slid sideways into the tree. The officer had called for back-up, so there were now two officers, guns drawn, telling him to get out of the car and lay face down on the ground. Justin lived in a small town of about 20,000 where everyone seemed to know each other. These officers knew Justin and his family.

They were concerned about his state of mind as well as his safety. The officers were convinced that Justin was attempting suicide by driving his car into the tree at a high rate of speed, but had second thoughts at the last minute. So, after loading Justin in one of the patrol cars, they took him to the small community hospital where they “pink slipped” him as a danger to himself. Justin was briefly seen in the ER and then escorted to the small, locked mental health unit.

Within 24 hours, Justin had visited with a psychiatrist, gone through a nursing assessment and written an abusive and vulgar note to his parents. He jammed the bathroom door with pennies and hung himself with a bed sheet from the grate of an air vent. He was found within five minutes and resuscitated by nurses and ER staff and then moved into ICU where he remained in a coma. Two weeks later his family decided to “pull the plug”.

Josh’s Story

Josh was a happy kid. One week prior, he sat with his Dad at the kitchen table, proudly showing off his birthday cake which represented 15 years, a big smile on each of their faces. As the fourth child of five, Josh loved his older brothers and sister. Mom and Dad had a stable marriage and Josh thrived on being the family clown. He was a service oriented boy, always helping the neighbors whether it be mending a fence, yard work or helping to finish a deck. He was on the wrestling team, had lots of friends and was elected Sophomore Class President for the upcoming school year. He had been working on his Eagle Scout and only had his Eagle Project left to complete. He was a youth leader at church and exercised his faith on a regular basis.

It was Monday morning; Josh went to the other room while his little brother sat in the family room watching TV. He grabbed some ammunition, then went and got the gun. He returned to his bedroom, locked the door and proceeded to take his own life.

As parents, family, neighbors and friends we want to know “why?” With Bob, Karen and Justin we can somehow make sense of the situation. Bob simply lost the desire to fight the fight with mental illness. Karen struggled with a personality disorder and through manipulative means, killed herself on accident. Justin also demonstrated some personality and emotional instability with anger being a driving force. He intentionally hung himself with the intent to hurt others as manifested by the note he left behind.

With Josh, there were no outward signs of stress or being distraught in anyway. It was a complete shock to the family as well as the community. There was no note. There was no change in behavior or affect. It is difficult to accept that there are some things in this life we will never have an answer for.

As parents, not one of us sat in the delivery room when our child was born and visualized the constant emotional battles, expensive therapy sessions or the placement of our child in a residential treatment center. However, as parents there isn't anything we wouldn't do to keep our teen safe and assist them through those turbulent stages of adolescent development.

It is easy for a fifteen second news bite to mention suicide and depression in the same breath. However, for those who have been affected by the suicide of a friend or loved one, we know that teen suicide is much more complicated than a symptom of depression…and often we are left with a lifelong yearning for the answer to one simple question…Why? Why?

There is a growing number of teens who see suicide as a way to deal with bullying. You can read more about Amanda Todd's sad story on the web. The dangers associated with social media are real.

Addendum #2:
You can read my latest post about an experience I recently had with a teen in my neighborhood taking his own life. A very sad experience.

Addendum #3:
With the death of actor and comedian Robin Williams, the Eternal question of "WHY?" once again raises it's ugly head!

Addendum #4:
I came home from a business trip this last week (3/29/2015) and my 13 year old daughter shared with me that a boy in her school shot himself while I was gone. She was upset and still trying to process the event. She said he was a very nice boy and that he was in a couple of her classes. She mentioned that she had just spoken with him the day prior to him taking his own life. Tragic!


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