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Betsy Scott. BScott@News-Herald.com
When Painesville Township teen Kirk Zajac learned in September that a fellow student had died, the name didn’t ring a bell.
But when the Notre Dame-Cathedral Latin principal explained to the school community that senior Andy Lehman chose to end his life, Kirk realized he knew the boy.
“Andy was the smart, quiet boy who rode my bus from time to time, whom my classmates and I called ‘polar bear,’ taunting him about his weight and outward appearance, … not letting him take a seat when he got on the bus in the mornings and making sure that the ride to school was utter hell for him,” says Kirk, 16.
“Upon realizing that the cause of Andy’s death was self-inflicted, the thought that I must have been responsible for his decision in some way haunted me for many weeks. I knew I had to do something about this.”
He first sought forgiveness from Andy’s parents. Then he offered to help in any way he could. That led to Kirk teaming with Andy’s father, Nick, to launch what they call the 2007 Depression and Suicide Awareness Campaign, which targets local schools.
“Our goal is to relate my story along with Andy’s through guest speaking or integration into health classes, etc., and point out our similarities to create the awareness that we so desire, and to ultimately save lives,” said Kirk, who now attends Riverside High School in Painesville Township.
Statistics show that their message is needed.
Since 2000, there have been 14 suicides in Lake County among people ages 15 to 20, according to coroner records. Two of them were within the last month. The Geauga County Coroner’s Office encountered 12 suicides from 1994 to 2004 – the most recent data available – among ages 14 to 24.
Nearly 20 percent of high school students in Ohio have seriously contemplated suicide, and it is the third-leading cause of death among people ages 15 to 24, behind accidents and homicides, according to the Lake County Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services Board.
“Adolescence is an age group where we’re seeing a significant increase in suicides,” said Bill White, director of the partial hospitalization program for Crossroads, a Mentor-based agency offering mental health and substance abuse services for children and adolescents.
Risks & warnings
More than 90 percent of all cases of suicide are linked to mental disorders such as depression, along with substance abuse, experts say. Another major risk factor is having access to a lethal weapon.
Andy had one of the three factors in his life. He was being treated for depression at the time of his suicide, but the only drug in his system was his antidepressant medication, his father said. His method was walking in front of a moving car.
Another trend experts are seeing is suicide among gay teens.
“Studies are showing that people who are gay tend to be at greater risk, not specifically due to their orientation, but there is a stigma in this society; they don’t feel they can be honest about their orientation, and feel isolated from others,” White said.
“Again, those can be risk factors. It doesn’t mean all gay people are at risk for suicide.”
Nick Lehman described his son as a loner with low self-esteem, despite being an A student. He said his son had emotional pain from the acrimonious divorce of his parents, and felt isolated from his peers.
“It was like every aspect of his life let him down,” Lehman said. Warning signs of suicide appeared.
His grades began to slip, but he didn’t seem to care; he dropped out of band, in which he excelled at percussion; he missed seven days of school in the first three weeks of the new school year; there were behavior changes, such as his eating habits, and he stayed up late on the computer.
Experts say other suicidal signs can include:
- Previous suicide attempts
- Increased substance abuse
- Serious expressions of hopelessness
- Lack of motivation and care about themselves or others
- A sudden burst of happiness after a season of depression
- Giving away prized possessions
- Making a will
- Quitting a job or other commitments
- Comments or writings related to wanting to die or the future without them.
“The one dynamic we find among young people (and suicide) is they tend to be more impulsive,” White said. “It often can be triggered by something going on in their lives … breakup with a girlfriend or boyfriend, or being expelled from school, learning a family member has cancer. Usually, these kids already have other risk factors present.”
On a mission
Lehman said a program called Red Flags might have helped his son.
It’s an adolescent depression awareness program developed by the Mental Health Association of Summit County and funded through the Ohio Department of Mental Health.
The program teaches about warning signs so that students can help themselves and each other. Lehman promoted the program via the Cleveland Catholic Diocese, and said many Catholic schools are interested in it. St. Gabriel School in Concord Township already has agreed to use the program.
Now Lehman is targeting public school systems. He and Kirk already have contacted officials in Painesville Township and Mentor school districts.
Riverside High School Principal David Toth said school counselors go through Crossroads training, and Crossroads personnel hold group sessions in the district twice a week. Toth said he would consider using the Red Flags program next year.
Mentor Schools Superintendent Jacqueline Hoynes said her district is looking at creating a uniform mental health program by the fall.
“I want to make sure our program looks at different aspects of mental health: bullying and issues like suicide prevention,” she said.
Hoynes met Tuesday with area mental health specialists, and will use Crossroads and ADAMHS personnel for staff suicide prevention training in August. In addition, a collaborative series of meetings on student-related mental health issues is planned next school year, she said.
The district already has an anonymous crisis hotline on its Web site, and a trained crisis team on staff.
How to help
Lake and Geauga counties have suicide prevention coalitions aimed at getting the word out about help available for people of all ages. There is even a support group for Lake County suicide survivors called Chrysalis, an initiative of the ADAMHS Board.
The coalitions offer tips for dealing with a suicidal person, such as:
- Don’t leave them alone; do ask questions.
- Don’t minimize the situation; do assess the danger.
- Don’t promise confidentiality; do tell others/get help.
- Don’t make moral judgments; do listen without passing judgment.
- Don’t argue or lecture; do stay calm and be empathetic.
“The things that lead someone to be suicidal are often quite treatable, through counseling and the use of medication,” White said.
He said suicide is often considered a taboo topic in society, but people concerned about a child should not be afraid to get involved.
“There’s a code among teens, ‘I don’t nark, I don’t tell.’ I think, in this case, we need to impress upon teens the importance of letting someone know if someone is making reference to killing themselves,” White said.
Lehman recommends that parents take responsibility as the first line of defense.
“Don’t get caught up in your own personal life to the degree that you don’t know what’s going on in your child’s life,” he said. “You can’t delegate that responsibility to teachers, doctors, therapists, their best friends; nobody can sense it like the parents do that something’s wrong. His mother and I tried to get him help. What do you do when it all fails? The parents are ultimately responsible, and you have to live with that for the rest of your life.”
For help, call the Lake County crisis hotline at (440) 953-TALK or the Geauga County COPEline at (888) 285-5665. For imminent danger, call 911.
©The News-Herald 2007