Discussion urged about teen suicide
By Jonathan Austin
published July 30, 2008 12:28 pm
Everyone is familiar with television news reports about the latest homicide: "A murder today…", "A man shot and killed…", "Two victims killed in shootout…"
Homicide is the 15th leading cause of death in the United States, so maybe it is logical that television news focuses on it.
But what about the 11th leading cause of death?
Why not have more discussion about it, since it results in more deaths every year?
Maybe because the 11th leading cause of death each year is suicide.
Pat Hefner, a Madison County deputy trained in suicide intervention, says "suicide, historically, has been a taboo subject.” But given the fact that suicide is the third leading cause of death for individuals age 15-25, he thinks we really need to talk about it. "That's serious," said Hefner, who is the resource officer at Madison High School.
AdvertisementIt's not that Hefner wants each suicide in the headlines, but he wants parents, educators and law enforcement officials to talk about the issue. He wants people to be willing to step forward and help those who are hurting.
It's important to start talking about suicide because two Madison teenagers have taken their own lives in the last five months. That's after a seven-year span in which no teen suicides were reported in Madison.
Suicide is not just an issue for teenagers. For Madison County adults, "suicide is a leading cause of death," said Health Director Carolyn Moser, "and depression is a major issue."
In fact, the Madison County Sheriff's office has responded to 38 reported suicide attempts this year alone.
But it seems to hit harder when the life lost is that of a child.
Tara Gardner knows that firsthand. Her 15-year-old son, Derrick James Gardner, killed himself with a gun on Feb. 24; just months after a horrific vehicle accident nearly took her life. But he had always dealt with complications.
"Derrick was very depressed for most of his life," his mother said last week when she sat down with the News-Record & Sentinel for a discussion about her son’s death. But she said she thought Derrick's toughest times were the middle school years, when he struggled with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
He had troubles in the high school, but Tara said Derrick's grades seemed to improve and he seemed happier. He still took anti-depression medication, but asked his parents to let him drop the ADHD drug; he said it made him listless and not wanting to talk.
"I thought he was doing good. He was doing better in school," she said. "He seemed to me to be on top of the world."
In fact, the first sign Tara says she had of her son's suicidal tendencies was when he killed himself.
"Afterwards, I got his last report card. He was down 30 points in one class … and really down in all of them," she said. But at home, he seemed happy and engaged. "After my wreck, which happened in September, he made it a point to make me upbeat," she remembered. "He liked to make people laugh. He'd say to me, 'You know, Mom, you've got to smile.' It was that way until the day he died."
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Household Survey on Drug Abuse report, over 1 million children attempted suicide in the U.S. in 2000, or more than 2,700 attempts each day by people ages 12 to 17.
According to The Jason Foundation, a national organization that battles youth suicide, approximately 100 kids commit suicide every week in the U.S.; more teenagers and young adults have died of suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease combined; and the childhood suicide rate has almost tripled in the past 40 years.
The desire to end one's life hits all age groups, though, and not a year has passed in this decade that Madison County didn't record adult suicides by firearm, poisoning, cutting, overdose or hanging.
And while the childhood suicides rip at the heart, the Madison age group registering the highest number of suicides is 55 to 64, with seven through 2007. Six people age 35-44 killed themselves in that period; five in the 25-34 ages; four in ages 45-54; three age 75-84; two age 20-24; and one over age 85. The only age group not seeing a reported suicide is the group age 65-74.
2006 saw the least suicides here, with one, and 2007 the highest, with six.
Hefner, the resource officer, said he's been successful at intervening in more than 200 suicide attempts, and he stressed that the key to stopping a teen from committing suicide is the willingness to talk about the risk.
"Talk!" Hefner said when asked what Madison needed to do to stop suicides. "Parents need to talk to their children. We need to get past this taboo subject.”
He said it's especially important when suicides have already wrenched the school community. "Derrick Gardner's situation really affected a lot of kids at the high school."
He said now is the time to have that talk. "They need to understand that they must talk about it." In fact, Hefner said that in every average high school class, three students have attempted suicide.
Gardner said: “I honestly believe (suicidal children) think about this for a long time,” but that Derrick “gave me no clue. No little clues and no big clues.”
She believes too much pressure is put on teenagers, from school testing to the attitudes of peers. “There is so much pressure,” she said.
She said she thinks children “are constantly told ‘You’re wrong’ while they “need to be given a chance to be kids. Too much is expected of them” in school. “You have to let them make their mistakes, before they make really big mistakes.”
“Talk to your kids,” Gardner said. “Listen to them; don’t talk at them.”
She also hopes anyone who may have heard Derrick talk about suicide that they will share that information with her.
Where is help?
So where can both children and parents turn for help? Hefner said he's always available to give guidance, and he said the Clyde-based group Parents Against Teen Suicide has a hotline – 800-367-7287, that helps intervene in suicide throughout Western North Carolina. Also, the American Association of Suicidology has a hotline at 800-273-8255.
Hefner said there are warning signs, though "even parents aren't trained to identify the indicators."
"Most suicides are a slow process," Hefner said. "Usually, the ones closest to the victim will not see it." Also, the risk of copycat suicide increases nine times after a successful suicide, he said.
Which is why the discussions need to begin.
Share your thoughts about this report. Email us by clicking on the author's name below.
By Jonathan Austin