The Salt Lake Tribune (UT)
July 2, 2000
Author: HEATHER MAY; THE SALT LAKE TRIBUNE
You want the breaking point to be something big, the reasons they hunt for a rope, a gun, a bottle of pills to be so great that they start to make sense. But the triggers of teen suicide are devastating in how insignificant they seem. A breakup with a boyfriend. A hangover. A fender bender. A headache.
If you are the parents of “Sara,” Torry, Dayne or Mat, you want to be able to answer the question that torments you night after night, almost a chant: Why, why, why, why? There are no definitive answers. Only fragments their families piece together as the days, weeks, months and years go by.
And a million “if onlys.” “You think of everything,” says Sara’s mom. “You just stab in the dark at every shadow.” “People say you can’t blame yourself,” her dad says. “That’s full of crap. We’re the parents. We have the legal responsibility, and she’s gone.”
These are the stories of four Utah families who hope that in sharing their losses, other families may be spared their grief. These are the stories of a 15-year-old who hanged herself two weeks after the prom and weeks before her birthday. Of an 18-year-old with a ready grin who graduated with honors and then shot himself in the basement as his family got ready for a vacation. Of a senior who shot himself in the family’s playhouse one month before graduating. And of an eighth-grader who hanged himself on the family swing set.
Thousands of U.S. teens will kill themselves this year, and Utah will lose its share. The state ranks among the top three for suicide rates for males ages 15 to 19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Out of 100,000 boys in Utah, an average of 35 will die. Nationally, the rate is 15 deaths per 100,000.
In 1998, the latest year for which the state has figures, 33 boys ages 10 to 19 killed themselves in Utah. Five girls in that age group committed suicide.
Utah health specialists, researchers, counselors and teachers can’t explain why the state’s rate is so high. National researchers have identified factors that play a role in teen suicide: divorce, depression, drug and alcohol use, easy access to weapons and greater pressure on teens.
But the truth is, the risk factors often look like typical teen angst. “There are tons of other kids dealing with the same things and they’re not committing suicide,” says Doug Gray, chief investigator for the ongoing Utah Youth Suicide Study and a child and adolescent psychologist. “It’s like a puzzle with a bunch of different pieces, and these kids have more pieces and that’s what leads to suicide.”
A Typical Teen: Sara, for example, is “everyteen.” She tickles her younger brother’s back before he goes to bed. She loves to snowmobile, eat shrimp and wear big clunky shoes. In her room, the 15-year-old tapes pictures of couples kissing and people hiking.
She finds new friends as she starts her sophomore year at Davis County high school. She begins dating an older boy. She spends more time in her room and with friends. Her parents see her less. She has trouble sleeping, but then so does her mother. She loses interest in snowmobiling and doesn’t want to practice for her upcoming driving test, but she goes to the prom and seems happy.
“You talk to other parents,” says “Gary,” her father, who asked that the family’s real names not be used. “And they go, ‘Typical teen-age girl,’ ” adds Sara’s mother, “Jane.” Except at some point Sara adds pictures of devils to the collage in her room. She secretly sketches pictures and writes ugly poems about her death. None of this is known until after she dies May 1.
Gary and Jane had gone out of town and when they returned Sunday there was a small fight because Sara hadn’t stayed home like she promised. Only later would they put new meaning to the “stone-cold” look in Sara’s eyes during the scolding. Then, it seemed like teen defiance.
“Please forgive me?” Jane remembers asking her daughter later that day. Sara wrinkled up her nose like she always did. On Monday, Jane went to wake Sara for school. Strangely, the door was locked. When she got inside and couldn’t see Sara in bed, Jane’s first thought was that she had run away. As she turned to call her husband, Jane saw her daughter.
Sara’s feet were so close to the ground Jane thought she was standing in her closet. She said her name and took a few steps and then saw the rope. “I cut her down and I held her and I kept thinking I could bring her back if I rubbed her arm or held her tight enough,” Jane says, crying. “I kept saying, ‘You can have all the tattoos you want, honey. I’ll let you do anything.’ ”
“I relive that moment every morning,” Jane says. “Suddenly your life becomes a living hell every single day.” In the days that followed, Gary and Jane recast all the events of Sara’s last year. They read about the warning signs and they see Sara: withdrawal, sleeping problems, waning interest in favorite activities. They uncover new pieces of the puzzle of her death.
They find a poem alluding to a boyfriend’s betrayal, and ambiguous notes Sara dashed off to her friends that said, “I can’t take it anymore.” And as is often the case, over the past year she’d shared thoughts of suicide with her friends. But her friends kept her thoughts secret.
That is typical: Most friends who know don’t tell the families. They don’t believe suicide is possible, think they can prevent it or worry about breaking their friends’ trust. Experts say suicide victims don’t realize the pain their deaths will cause. Their parents will tell you it is incomprehensible. They describe it as a hole in their hearts, a never-healing wound.
They accumulate neck aches and back pains and upset stomachs. They become jealous of their neighbors, whose children are alive. They take sleeping pills at night. Some contemplate their own suicides. At times they deny their child is dead to get from one moment to the next.
The horror hits anew when they see someone who walks like their daughter, as they drive by her high school, when they pass the local 7-Eleven and remember getting Slurpees. They question their parenting skills, starting with the days and months before the suicide and then going farther and farther back in time.
“I beat up on myself,” says Dian Olsen, whose son died in 1997. “Why, as a mother, didn’t I know how serious this was? Why didn’t I do this, why didn’t I do that? “Sometimes you find yourself going clear back to their childhood and thinking, ‘When they were 2 years old was I not positive enough with them, did I not do this?’ ”
But later she would learn her son Torry was the prototypical victim. Pile of Problems: Torry Olsen’s problems just seemed to pile up.
He graduated from Viewmont High School in Bountiful with honors but didn’t get a scholarship. He was in two car accidents, and had hurt his shoulder and couldn’t lift weights, play basketball or water ski with his friends. And he’d been experimenting with drugs and alcohol, which Dian Olsen would later view as an attempt to self-medicate for his seemingly growing problems.
The pressure to be perfect was also a factor, Dian Olsen says. Some have said pressure is worse for teens who are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, because of the church’s emphasis on living a morally strict life.
Dian Olsen, a Mormon, says she doesn’t believe LDS teens feel any greater pressure than do youth in other denominations — and studies on Utah teen suicide show religious affiliation isn’t a factor. However, Olsen was aware her son felt he wasn’t living up to his parents’ or his religion’s expectations because of his drug use.
A few months before he died, Torry Olsen told his mom he needed to find new friends. “He realized there was danger there and he wasn’t strong enough to keep hanging out with these kids and not do that, and yet where did he fit?” Olsen says. “There were kids that were really active in the church, obeying the Word of Wisdom, so to speak — and I hate to even say ‘the church’ — the kids that were really doing what society thinks they ought to be doing. “So it’s like, how do you get from [there] back over to here?” A violent hangover from drinking cough syrup may have been Torry Olsen’s final straw. He was miserably sick, so sick Dian Olsen wanted to take him to the hospital. But Torry Olsen kept reassuring her he’d be OK. Only he wasn’t.
As the family prepared for a vacation, Torry Olsen went into the basement garage and shot himself using a gun the family kept locked away. Statistically, it fits perfectly with the typical youth suicide in Utah: 88 percent of the victims ages 13 to 21 are male; 93 percent are white; 60 percent die at home; and 54 percent use a firearm. Girls typically choose a less lethal method, like drugs, which might explain why they attempt suicide more often but die less frequently.
“If they had been girls and taken an overdose, I think they both would have been grateful that somebody would have found them. I do not feel that in the end that was something they would chose again,” says Dyan Harris, whose son, also a senior at Viewmont High School, shot himself three months before Torry Olsen died. Similar Stories: Dyan Harris heard the news about Torry Olsen and she showed up at the Olsen’s home to offer a hug. Their sons’ stories are sadly similar.
Dyan Harris could see her son Dayne was depressed. The spark in his eyes seemed to have disappeared. But when she asked him about it, he brushed it off, like most boys do. The stigma of depression was too big to bear. “Dayne and I talked about depression but he would not seek any help, would not admit out loud he was depressed,” Dyan Harris says.
And a doctor, a month before Dayne Harris died, told Dyan Harris that her 18-year-old son was OK. Dayne Harris may have felt pressure to be perfect, too. “They are so hard on themselves,” says his mom. “They judge themselves more harshly than anybody else does.”
In April, Dayne Harris was involved in a minor fenderbender witnessed by his friends. The accident may have embarrassed him, his mom says, and his friends apparently knew he was shaken up because two of them tried to page him later that night. He never returned their calls. His sister and father found his body the next day in a playhouse.
Since the deaths of their sons, Dyan Harris and Dian Olsen have founded a support group for families dealing with suicide. They hear about a suicide along the Wasatch Front about once a week.
Kanab High School counselor Carolyn Hamblin says the suicide rate may be high in the West because of an individualistic mentality. “We sort of have to pull ourselves by our own boot straps out here. That kind of thinking [says] you have to be strong, you have to have will power, just get over it.”
Genetic Link: But some kids are born with problems that make them prone to suicide. Depression runs in Mat Johnson’s family, for instance, a depression sometimes so severe it’s led other family members to attempt suicide. And he had other problems with a genetic link.
By the time Mat Johnson was 13, he’d already been to a series of doctors. They’d treated him for aggression, violent mood swings, headaches and paranoia. They gave him pills for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, depression and sleeping problems, according to his mother, Kathie Johnson.
At one point he took 12 Prozac pills so his parents would take him to the hospital, believing that doctors there would help him feel better.
His doctors believed Mat had bipolar illness, characterized by bouts of mania and depression. One minute he played with other children, the next he slammed doors, punched holes in the wall and asked his parents to hit his head until he died. He became paranoid about riding the school bus.
Mat was prescribed lithium, even though the family’s insurance company refused to pay for a hospital stay necessary to fully test him for bipolar illness. The company also wouldn’t pay for prolonged outpatient treatment. So Mat tried to treat himself. He stopped taking Prozac after he heard a radio program about the anti-depressant’s side effects; some have suggested it has caused users to commit suicide. The headaches and mood swings went away, Kathie Johnson says. But his doctors insisted he take the medication.
Mat was put back on Prozac, and the headaches and mood swings soon returned. He asked to see a doctor. It took three weeks to make it to the top of a waiting list for counselors; the doctor dismissed his complaints and referred him to another doctor. Two days later, on Sept. 25, 1998, Mat hanged himself on the family swing set.
Kathie Johnson isn’t sure what Mat planned the day he died. He had gone outside to relieve his headache and was playing on the tricky bars with a rope wrapped around his neck. The bars were slick from the rain and he could have slipped. Or perhaps he was trying to send a message to his family and his doctors.
“He hated how he felt,” she says. “He tried to get help and couldn’t.”
Today that swing set remains in Kathie Johnson’s backyard, a reminder not of her son’s death but of the many happy hours he spent playing on it. She’s left intact the spot on the family room wall where he carved his name, as well as the hand prints he made with rubber caulking on a front porch pillar.
“To me, it reminds me he was alive,” Kathie Johnson says.
The parents who have dealt with the loss of their sons the longest, Dian Olsen and Dyan Harris, say eventually you find a way to cope. They’ve stopped thinking of their sons every five minutes; now it’s every hour. They’re working on ways to prevent suicide in other families and they’re starting to live in the present rather than obsessing over the past.
“You finally have to find some peace,” says Dian Olsen, “and know you’re never going to have all the pieces of the puzzle.”
Signs Your Teen Might Be Considering Suicide
- Depressed mood
- Change in eating and sleeping habits
- Withdrawal from friends, family and regular activities
- Violent actions, rebellious behavior or running away
- Trouble getting along with friends or family
- Drug and alcohol use
- Unusual neglect of personal appearance
- Marked personality change
- Persistent boredom, difficulty concentrating or a decline in the quality of schoolwork
- Frequent complaints about physical symptoms, often related to emotions, such as stomachaches, headaches, fatigue, etc.
- Loss of interest in pleasurable activities
- Doesn’t tolerate praise or rewards
- Experiences a loss including divorce, breakup with boy or girlfriend
- Puts his or her affairs in order, for example, gives away prized possessions, cleans his or her room
- Writes notes or poems about death
- Talks or jokes about suicide
- Attempted suicide before
- Family history of suicide
- Complains of being a bad person or feeling “rotten inside” and gives verbal hints with statements such as: “I won’t be a problem for you much longer,” “Nothing matters,” “It’s no use,” and “I won’t see you again”
- Becomes suddenly cheerful after a period of depression
- Has signs of psychosis (hallucinations or bizarre thoughts)
- Has easy access to lethal methods
- unwilling to seek help because of stigma attached to mental illness
(Source: American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services