Teen suicide is world of grief for dad — (The Deseret News)

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The Deseret News (Salt Lake City, UT)

April 1, 1999

Author: Cathy Free Deseret News columnist

Note: Ann Tracy, Ph.D., Executive Director of the International Coalition for Drug Awareness, confirmed that this boy was taking Paxil at the time of the suicide.

Five months after the phone call that forever changed his life, Keith Jensen sits down at the table and slowly pulls memories out of a plastic grocery bag.    There is a family portrait of Keith, his wife, Lucile, and their seven children, dressed in matching denim. There is a beautiful poem about death written by Lucile, and there is a high school portrait of the Jensens’ middle son, Conrad, taken last year, his senior year.

Keith sets the framed portrait on the table, next to the salt and pepper shakers, then takes out two final items: a picture of a freeway overpass next to Highland High School and an obituary, bearing the same sunny smile as the senior portrait, the same smile that causes everyone who sees Conrad‘s picture to wonder, “why?”

We sit in a quiet corner at Marie Callender’s and stare at the portrait in silence for a moment. How does a father begin to discuss the day his 17-year-old son committed suicide by jumping off a freeway bridge? You begin, says Keith, by admitting that you can’t go “there” — to that place inside that hurts so deeply you’re afraid if you start to cry, you might never stop.

“If I didn’t distance myself from my innermost emotions, I couldn’t talk about it,” he says. “For me, there is still denial.”    A financial counselor at Primary Children’s Medical Center, Keith asked to meet me for a Free Lunch chat because he has been severely troubled not only by his son’s suicide but the possible reasons behind it.

“Conrad was a multitalented mainstream teenager with high goals and many achievements to his credit,” says Keith. “And yet, he felt as if he was failing. He was unable to visualize himself succeeding in the adult world.

“I see so many teens with similar anxiety,” he says, “and it makes me want to know why. Is it because we live in a society of success and failure, with nothing in between? When I was in high school, I remember a lot of in-betweeners. There wasn’t the pressure to be the perfect student like today.”

Parents shoulder some of the blame, says Keith, but he also believes the public school system is at fault for many of the stresses today’s teens face.

“Schools are under pressure to bring test scores up,” he says, “and that is motivating a few high achievers to do very well while the rest struggle.”

Conrad was one of those strugglers. Beginning at age 13, he had intense episodes of depression that led to failure in most of his classes. But it looked as though things were turning around for him last fall.  Conrad had finally agreed to take medication for his depression, and he was doing well in school.

Then, on the afternoon of Oct. 22, he got into an argument with his girlfriend and took off running. He ran from his front yard directly to the freeway bridge. An eyewitness said he never hesitated before leaping over.

Keith will never know what one thing led his son to choose to die that day. All he knows is that Conrad’s in-line skates, keychain collection and favorite neckties are packed away in a box downstairs. His heart, kidneys and corneas were donated so that others might live and have sight, but that is a small comfort to a father who plays his son’s last phone message again and again.

“I just called to say I love you, Dad,” says a happy voice on the tape, one week before the jump from the bridge.

After the lunch dishes are cleared away, Keith is close to that painful place where he doesn’t like to tread. His advice to parents of other troubled teens is simple but heartfelt.   “Just love them,” he says softly. “That’s all you can do. Just love them.”

Have a story? Let’s do lunch. E-mail your name and phone number and what’s on your mind to (freelunch@desnews.com) or send a fax to 466-2851. Or you can write me at the Deseret News, P.O. Box 1257, Salt Lake City, UT 84110.