As teenage suicide rises in Tulare County, concern comes out into the open

Teen suicide: ‘We have to talk about this’

It's a silent epidemic, one that struck 1,817 teenagers in the United States in 2001 and has risen dramatically in Tulare County in the past three years. And yet it's an epidemic that few talk about, is rarely written about and that people try to forget.

It's teen suicide.

“There is a stigma about talking about it. A lot of people are afraid that if I talk about it, they will do it. That doesn't happen,” said Beverly Anderson, a marriage and family therapist at Synchrony of Visalia Inc. “It's not a morally defective decision. It's an impulsive act that teenagers make when they don't see any options.”

In Tulare County this year, five teenagers have committed suicide, according to sheriff's Lt. Jay Salazar. That number is up from four in 2002 and one in 2001. But shocked by the deaths of two Mt. Whitney High School students who killed themselves within two weeks of each other, many say silence is no longer acceptable.

“This is something we can't keep hiding,” said Sheri Jefferis, a mother of a teen who committed suicide in 1999. “We have to talk about this.” Since her son Ryan's death, Jefferis has been an advocate for talking openly about suicide. “We are all concerned, and our concern has been heightened by the most recent deaths in our community,” said Fred Nave, Visalia Unified School District director of student services.

In response to a rise in suicides and other teenage deaths, including accidental deaths, the school district will hold an informational meeting at 7 p.m. today at the L.J. Williams Theater for parents and others. A panel of guests will address the subjects of loss, grief, risky student behavior and student suicides. Anderson, a therapist at a nonprofit mental health and education clinic, will speak on teen grief.

She said the two students from Mt. Whitney who committed suicide, teens who die in car accidents and the recent death of Adam Penton, who died when he tried to jump off his roof into his swimming pool and hit the pool deck, all take a toll on teenagers, whether they knew the students or not.

“We have to understand what a confusing and rocky task teenagers have,” Anderson said. “We have to assume at times like this that kids are grieving.”

In the wake of the recent deaths at Mt. Whitney, students and youth pastors gathered at the flag poles before school started every day last week. They prayed for the students, their families and friends.

Last week, Visalia Police Chief Jerry Barker vowed to look into teen deaths. “I am concerned about the fact that we seem to have had a lot of young people die,” Barker said.

So Barker directed police staff members last week to research teen deaths and the circumstances surrounding them. “These are difficult and sensitive issues,” he said. “I want to know what we can do to avoid these types of deaths.”

Anderson said it is important for parents and peers to watch for signs of depression and risky behavior. But the signs are not always easy to spot. “Depression in teenagers doesn't look the same in adults, so it is often missed,” she said. Anderson knows how it feels first hand to suffer from the effects of teen suicide. When she was 13, her best friend shot himself because he had broken up with his girlfriend.

“I have never forgotten about this, and it is one of the reasons I am a therapist,” she said.

Parents should watch for signs that teens are withdrawn and signs of hopelessness about the future. She also said it is extremely important to seek help if any child or friend expresses suicidal thoughts, no matter who you are.

“If you hear a student talking about suicide, you must tell an adult,” Anderson said. And she said now is a more important time than ever to watch for signs. “There is a tendency, when one person successfully dies by a suicide, that opens the door to kids who are emotionally more vulnerable,” she said.

But Anderson said paying attention and talking about it helps. “Teenagers can be pretty intimidating and a lot of people will back away,” she said. “But we can't do that. We really have to be there. They don't want us to stay away. It's a test. They are asking, ‘Will you love me through my anger, my ugliness and confusion?’ ”

Mt. Whitney Principal Henry Pasquini said he hopes tonight's informational meeting will help parents understand teen risky behavior. “I hope parents gain more of an understanding and recognition, so they can intervene at the right time,” he said.

Four community members will present information on loss, grief and risk taking behaviors, including suicide. Those community members include Jana Cearley, a crisis response worker with Visalia Youth Services; Anderson and Barry Sommer, local mental health practitioners, and Carolyn Brown, a parent representing Survivors of Suicide.

A panel of experts will also answer questions.

“We will always have death and accidents, but our concern is also seeking out young people who engage in risky behavior, such as driving too fast, taking drugs or students attempting or approximating suicide,” Nave said.

Help for parents
  • Remember what it was like to be a teenager, the confusion, frustration, moodiness, not knowing and feeling lost.
  • Check in with your children.
  • Don't ask, "Are you stressed?" Ask, "What is stressing you?"
  • Pay attention.
  • Listen to your children's friends and their parents.
  • Don't let teenagers push you away.


By Shannon Darling
20 November 2003