Teen suicide rates alarming


Katie said she felt detached last year as she swallowed a handful of prescription painkillers.

"I wasn't even thinking at all," the 17-year-old said. "I was in a dream. I was in a daze."

It was a spur-of-the-moment decision, but it wasn't the first time she thought about suicide.

"I thought of it a lot of times," Katie said. "I thought of driving my car off a cliff and how easy it would be."

The urge to attempt suicide came one afternoon after her mother left the house. Katie said she grabbed the first bottle of pills she saw in the medicine drawer and headed to her bedroom.

She said she felt overwhelmed with pain and stress and didn't know how to seek or get help. She took 15 pills altogether, a few at a time.

"I didn't think about anyone else, I just thought about myself," she said.

Few people knew Katie was depressed or considering suicide. She said she had tried to hide her pain.

"I didn't think anyone would care," she said. "I truly thought I was alone."

Sitting in her bedroom with the pills in her stomach, Katie realized she didn't want to die.

She called her boyfriend and told him what she had done. He arrived at her house and took her to the emergency room. Doctors pumped her stomach.

"It was horrible," Katie said. "It was the worst experience, having a tube shoved down your throat. They weren't gentle about it."

Katie survived. With medication and counseling, she is working to deal with the issues that led her to attempt suicide. She hopes she can help others avoid what she says was a mistake.

Disturbing statistics

More than 17 percent of students at Steamboat Springs High School said they have attempted suicide.

Their confessions were recorded anonymously through a survey conducted by SteamboatCARES in 2002. A teenager has not completed suicide in Steamboat in more than 10 years. However, the health survey revealed that Katie was one of the many students dealing with depression and suicidal thoughts.

More than 20 percent of SSHS students said they rarely or never feel hopeful about the future. Nearly 13 percent feel sad or depressed most days and almost 40 percent said they had been so depressed during their lives that they considered suicide.

Nationally, 19.3 percent of high school students claim to have contemplated killing themselves. Suicide is the third leading killer of people ages 15 through 24, behind accidents and homicide.

The statistics are staggering, said Carol Gordon, a licensed clinical social worker. Gordon provides counseling and is in charge of the educational and bereavement facets of the Suicide Crisis Intervention Lifeline in Steamboat.

Gordon thinks that isolation, a lack of mental health education and a sense of being trapped in a small town could be behind some of the survey responses at the high school.

"In rural areas, there is less information about neurobiological disorders and more stigma," Gor-don said. She prefers the term "neurobiological disorder" to "mental illness," which she said implies a stigma.

Emergency Ser-vices Coordinator Sandra Papp of Steamboat Mental Health Center said the Western, rural state of mind is not helpful to teenagers suffering from de-pression.

Papp said the thinking is often to simply "cowboy up," or "get over it."

Colorado has been one of the top 10 states in the country for suicide rates for more than five years. Gordon said the top 10 are all mountain states.

She said firearms are often readily available, and alcohol consumption and abuse are more common in rural areas. Both contribute to higher suicide rates.

Challenge for teenagers

"(Teenagers) are not able to solve their problems well," Gordon said. The rapid rate of hormonal and intellectual change coupled with day-to-day stress can be overwhelming for adolescents.

"We as adults expect teenagers to make decisions like we do," said Joan Allsberry, a counselor at Steamboat Springs High School and the district health coordinator. "They're just not wired to."

Allsberry said situations that seem trivial to adults are magnified by teens.

"It is huge for them when they are going through something," she said. "There is so much (adults) don't understand.

"It's not usually one thing. It's layers of things that are happening. To describe it in a word, it's feeling overwhelmed."

Katie attributes her experience to her inability to deal with pain and frustration in her life.

"It was like everything built up inside, and it just all exploded," Katie said. "My intention wasn't to die, it was to end the pain."

Understanding the brain

Papp said Katie's story is common among people who have attempted suicide. Papp often responds to the hospital or the scene of an attempted suicide, and she said she asks: "Did you want to die? Did you truly want to die? Or did you want the pain to go away?"

Almost everyone says the latter.

Papp said there is always a way to help with pain but that suicide often is the only escape teens see. Adolescents also can be more impulsive, a combination that can be dangerous.

"I think it's a way to let others know how chaotic they are feeling inside," Papp said. "They can't really identify it, they can't put it into words. It's a narrowing of options."

The best means of preventing suicide is recognizing and seeking treatment for depression or other brain disorders. People suffering from depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia comprise 90 percent of all suicides, Gordon said.

The disorders usually can be treated by medication and are chemical imbalances, not character weaknesses, Gordon said.

Papp said there is an immense amount of brain activity that is not understood. Modern science is slowly breaking down the misconceptions of neurobiological disorders and the teenage brain.

"We're just on the cusp of learning how the brain functions," Papp said. "I think there are going to be incredible breakthroughs."

Family pain

Jane said she was shell-shocked when her eighth-grade daughter attempted suicide.

Like Katie, Jane's daughter attempted to overdose. Jane said she noticed a change happening in her daughter before the attempt.

"In eighth grade, new friends, grades plummeted, bad attitude," Jane said. "She's the last one you'd suspect." Before she became increasingly depressed, Jane said her daughter had been very pleasant and a good student.

"She was really a delight through most of middle school," Jane said. "Then it all changed."

Gordon said the change is typical of a teenager suffering from depression or feeling suicidal.

"It's very difficult to live with anyone who has a neurobiological disorder," Gordon said. "They look the same, but they are acting so differently."

Jane said she struggled to help her daughter. Her daughter confided in her friends, not her family. Jane was hurt and frustrated.

Allsberry said teenagers typically try to pull away from their parents, especially when it comes to personal topics.

"I think it is totally typical that they don't go to their parents," Allsberry said. "There's this whole culture of kids who feel bad about life, and they find other kids who feel bad about life, and it just kind of feeds off of itself."

Jane said she knew that some of her daughter's friends were depressed and that one had attempted suicide.

Eventually, one of her daughter's friends made sure Jane found out about the suicide attempt.

Allsberry said depressed teenagers don't often notice how much stress and pain they cause their families.

"They're still so wrapped up in their own thing, I don't think they realize the frenzy that is going on around them," Allsberry said. "I've seen families devastated and rattled to the core by this."

Papp said family and friends left behind by someone who has completed a suicide are subject to a unique pain and despair.

"It is horrific to the people left behind," Papp said. "Dealing with the survivors is the hardest part."

Recognizing a problem

Withdrawal, changes in eating habits, irritability, reckless behavior, angry or unusual writing or art and the inability to find pleasure in things that used to make them happy can be signs that a teenager is depressed or suicidal.

Although alone these changes can be typical of a teenager, a combination of these symptoms should serve as a warning sign to parents, Gordon said.

Despite teenagers' determination not to talk to their parents, communication is key when dealing with a depressed adolescent, Jane said.

"You have to be vigilant. You have to communicate with other parents," Jane said.

Papp said it is important to find time for family, despite hectic schedules. She said teenagers should be given some structure.

"Turn off the TVs, turn off the phones. Let's sit down and have dinner together," Papp said. She agreed that parents should be persistent in talking to their children about depression.

"Don't give up. Keep bringing it up," Papp said.

When forced to talk, teenagers are usually relieved to have the weight of their pain lifted from their shoulders, Allsberry said.

Katie used to think her parents wouldn't care if she told them she was depressed.

"Looking back, I know that wasn't true," she said.

After months of counseling and anti-depressant medication, Katie is hopeful. But she knows many teenagers struggle with the same things she did.

"I know how they're feeling. Sit back and look at all the positive things," she advised. "Talk to friends and family, that has a bigger influence than you know."

Jane's daughter also has been able to combat her depression with therapy and medication.

"She's back to being more active," Jane said. "She's laughing again, and the light is back in her eyes."

"It's a battle," Jane said. "It's going to be ongoing."


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