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Raising Arizona Kids

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Thursday, July 24, 2014

“You Matter” – Preventing teen suicide

Sixteen-year-old-Andy Hull left school at lunchtime on Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2012. He walked home, listened to some music in his bedroom and then shot himself with a family gun.

“If this can happen to Andy, it can happen to anyone,” reflects his mother, LeAnn Hull. “Andy was a happy, great kid. He loved country music and making goofy faces. His friends called him ‘Sunshine.’”

teen suicide, prevention, Andy Hull, LeAnn Hull

LeAnn Hull in the room where her son died. Photo by Daniel Friedman.

He played baseball for the Sandra Day O’Connor High School Eagles. Major league baseball teams were scouting him. Hull thinks her son might have skipped college to play pro ball.

Andy struggled with typical teenage challenges and pressures: lost love, wavering grades and mean-spirited social media. But nothing seemed to indicate suicide.

He was having difficulty concentrating, but Hull attributed that to a new medication he was taking. He asked for an appointment with the school counselor, but her schedule was full.

“Nobody was listening,” says Hull.

Hull thinks often about the day Andy died.

“I yelled at him that morning about his grades,” she recalls. “My head knows that’s not the reason, but what if I’d been here….We will forever do the what-ifs.”

It wasn’t until after her son died that Hull learned he had talked with friends about suicide and posted cryptic social media messages. A Sunday night text message read, “The pieces of the puzzle are all gone.” Tuesday, he was dead.

Just seconds before he pulled the trigger, Andy watched an Eminem video fraught with violence-laced lyrics.

“We’re all like sponges,” reflects Hull. “The video gave Andy permission to indulge his pain.”

A dozen or so teens descended on the Hull’s home that night, all in shock after learning of Andy’s death.

“The kids were watching me,” says Hull. “So I tried to be strong. That first week the kids never left my house.”

They studied for finals. They painted a blue heart over the bloodstain on Andy’s bedroom wall.

Hull wasn’t sure what to do with Andy’s ashes, which sat for a time atop his dresser. She decided to buy glass bottles and fill them with layers of sand and some of her son’s ashes. She gave some of the bottles to Andy’s friends so they could always feel he was with them.

“It was a healing process,” explains Hull.

She’s stayed in close contact with Andy’s friends, who made a poster that is a touching reminder of all her son meant to them. And she’s resolved, amidst her own grief, to reach as many teens as possible with one simple message: You matter.

How common is teen suicide?

In her work with the Phoenix nonprofit Teen Lifeline, Nikki Kontz often asks groups of students if they know someone who has attempted or completed suicide.

“Ninety percent raise their hands,” says Kontz, clinical director for the organization, which runs a crisis hotline and youth suicide prevention programs.

Kontz learned about Teen Lifeline from a teacher at Xavier Preparatory Academy in Phoenix, where she was a sophomore at the time a friend took his own life.

After his death, Kontz felt anger, hurt and sadness.

“If I had just known, I could have helped him,” she recalls thinking at the time.

Suicide is the third leading cause of death in the U.S. for youth ages 10 to 24, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which reports that about 4,600 youth take their own lives each year.

In Arizona, 39 Arizona youth ages 17 or younger took their lives in 2011, the most recent year for which statistics are available.

Arizona ranks high in several areas that put significant strains on youth, including teen pregnancy and high school dropout rates. Mental health services are lacking. And because Arizona is a transient state, with people constantly coming and going, it’s hard for families for form support networks, says Kontz.

The economic downturn also has likely had an effect, according to Markay Adams, injury prevention specialist with the Arizona Department of Health Services. When parents face unemployment or other stressors, it affects every member of the family.

Why do kids attempt suicide?

The reasons behind every suicide are different, says Mesa mother Ashley Van Galder, who provides volunteer support to survivors at suicide scenes and facilitates a suicide survivor support group through Empact Suicide Prevention Center in Tempe.

Often, she says, there are multiple triggers.

Van Galder herself attempted suicide as a teen, after a traumatic event compounded the clinical depression that runs in her family. Three years ago, she lost a grandfather to suicide.

Risk factors noted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention include:

  • History of previous suicide attempt
  • Family history of suicide
  • History of depression or other mental illness
  • Alcohol or drug use
  • Stressful life event or loss
  • Easy access to lethal methods
  • Exposure to the suicidal behavior of others
  • Incarceration

Kontz advises parents to watch for drastic changes in behavior, from mood swings to eating or sleeping habits.

Increased impulsivity or risk-taking in sports or other activities are red flags. Teens contemplating suicide may grow clingy—or more distant.

“Pay attention to your child’s writings and drawings,” recommends Kontz. “Monitor what your kids and their friends are saying on the Internet. You’ve got to go where the kids are.”

Listen to your intuition, urges Kontz. “If a feeling in your stomach says something’s just not right, don’t let go of it.”

Teens contemplating suicide may start giving away prized possessions or saying goodbyes.

Shortly before taking his life, Andy told his mom not to worry when he died one day. “You should celebrate,” he told her, “because I’ll be in a better place.”

At the time, Hull says, it seemed a perfectly natural comment from a teen raised in a religious household.

Prevention

The youngest child to die by suicide in Arizona in 2011 was just 7 years old, according to Kontz. So it’s never too early to talk about feelings.

Kids model the ways their parents handle problems and stressors, says ays Van Galder. Show them that it’s okay to discuss emotions. Talk with them about what to do when they’re feeling mad or sad. Teach kids to problem-solve for themselves but let them know that it’s fine to ask for help when they need it.

Talking openly about suicide helps kids feel they won’t be condemned or looked down upon if they experience thoughts of suicide, says Van Galder. “It’s like talking to kids about sex,” she says. “We have to keep the lines of communication open.”

Don’t assume that a teen who casually mentions suicide or makes what you consider a half-hearted attempt is simply acting out or trying to create typical teen melodrama, cautions Van Galder.

Kids who talk of suicide aren’t attention seekers, she says. They’re attention needers.

Raising the subject of suicide won’t cause a child to attempt it, adds Toni Donnelly, who works with the Family Involvement Center in Phoenix, which offers support to children and youth with emotional, behavioral or mental health disorders.

Donnelly’s involvement with family-centered care started years ago in another state, after her own son, then 12, tried to hang himself with a rope. He struggled for years, she recalls, until mental health conditions were properly diagnosed and treated. Today he’s doing fine.

“Most people don’t talk about suicide because they don’t know how,” says Donnelly. The center offers workshops designed to help parents and others develop strategies for discussion.

If you see behaviors that concern you, says Donnelly, ask your child what’s going on that makes life feel unbearable. Or pose the direct question: “Are you having thoughts of suicide?”

“It’s not about saying the right thing,” reflects Alicia Celis, outreach specialist for Teen Lifeline in Phoenix. “It’s about being there.”

Children want parents to take an interest in them, she says, and listen without jumping straight to giving advice. Meeting despair with “You’ll get over it” or “There are other fish in the sea” isn’t helpful, she says. Neither is rushing in to fix or problem-solve everything for your child.

Listen without glossing over your child’s concerns, urges Celis. And share this powerful message: I am always here for you.

Encourage your child to tell an adult when a friend talks about suicide or seems to be in serious distress, says Hull, who might have had a chance to help her son if she’d known about the distressing social media messages Andy’s friend were seeing. It’s better to lose a friendship than a friend, she explains.

And be aware of what is influencing your child’s perceptions.

“Kids get constant input from outside sources,” she says. “Even with well-adjusted kids, we need to monitor what they’re doing. It’s such a volatile world for them,” says Hull. “We need to be vigilant.”

How to make a difference

Mesa mother Sherron Candelaria lost her adult son Kevin to suicide in 2007, after a long battle with mental illness and substance abuse.

Getting Kevin to accept help was hard, she says, because of stigmas surrounding mental health disorders. “I’m not crazy, Mom,” Kevin used to tell her. “I’m not crazy.”

She encourages parents to advocate for better diagnosis and treatment of mental health disorders. “The earlier we can assist a child in any way,” she says, “the sooner we can change that life around.”

Other ways to prevent the tragedy of suicide:

  • Discuss suicide before your child hits a crisis. “The preteen, middle school years are a good time to start,” says Kontz.
  • Don’t assume that childproofing your home ends when your kids start school. Keep kids of all ages away from weapons, alcohol, medications and other possible means of suicide.
  • Keep suicide hotline numbers on your refrigerator so they’re always readily available. Several organizations, including Teen Lifeline, offer magnets with this information.
  • Talk with your child’s school about suicide prevention efforts.
  • Suggest that teachers, coaches, bus drivers and others be trained to spot warning signs and know how to respond.
  • Share suicide prevention resources with local faith communities, youth sports and recreation programs and other organizations serving youth. Make sure they know where troubled youth can turn for help.
  • Beware of bullying in school, church and other settings. Support kids others perceive as different. “My son didn’t feel accepted,” says Grover.
  • Focus on your own mental health. “If you’re not okay, you can’t be okay for anyone else,” says Van Galder.

Spreading sunshine

As life goes on for those left behind, Hull knows nothing will ever be the same without her son. “There is no peace,” she says. “My life has changed forever.”

Christmas. Mother’s Day. Andy’s birthday in June. Father’s Day. They’re tough, says Hull. Anyone who hasn’t lived through it will never know how it feels.

“To be honest, there are days that I don’t want to be here,” says Hull. “But there’s a difference between thought and action.”

Hull wishes she could watch Andy graduate with all his friends next year. She’ll never see him attend college, get married or start his own family. Her voice sometimes quivers when she talks about Andy.

“I can feel my heart racing,” she explains while sharing his story. “You can see why people retreat.”

But that’s not her way.

Instead, Hull is spreading the word about youth suicide prevention through the Andy Hull Sunshine Foundation, a nonprofit she founded just months after Andy’s death.

Her “You Matter” speech, delivered during a student assembly at O’Connor High School, is available on You Tube.

And she’s busy planning other ways to spread the “You Matter” message.

“I’m so thankful,” says Hull, “for the other parents who trust me with their children.”

 

Local suicide prevention resources

Empact-Suicide Prevention Center
480-784-1500 in Maricopa County
866-205-5229 in other Arizona counties
empact-spc.com
Located at La Frontera in Tempe. Suicide/crisis hotline, mobile crisis team, suicide awareness/prevention training, crisis debriefing, suicide survivor support groups, counseling, trauma healing services and more.

Teen Lifeline
602-248-TEEN (8336) in Maricopa County
800-248-TEEN (8336) in other Arizona counties
teenlifeline.org
Located in Phoenix. Suicide/crisis hotline and prevention education for parents, schools, youth groups and professionals who work with youth. Suicide intervention training and training to help identify/support someone at risk. Education and debriefing support following suicides or other traumatic events (mostly at schools).

 

Local mental health resources

Family Involvement Center
familyinvolvementcenter.org
Support groups (English- and Spanish-speaking) and suicide intervention training.

Mentally Ill Kids in Distress (MIKID) Arizona
mikid.org
Information, referrals and support groups.

National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) Arizona
namiaz.com
Family support groups and education programs for parents/caregivers, teachers, faith communities and others.

 

Suicide facts

• The top three suicide methods used by young people in the U.S. are firearms (45%), suffocation (40%) and poisoning (8%).

• In a survey of U.S. high school students, 16% report seriously considering suicide, 13% report creating a plan and 8% report trying to take their own life during the previous 12 months.

• Native American/Alaskan Native youth have the highest rate of suicide fatalities.

• Boys are more likely than girls to die by suicide, but girls are more likely to report attempting suicide.

—Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

 

Words matter

When talking about suicide:

  • Say a person “died by suicide” rather than “committed suicide.”
  • Rather than saying someone “failed” or “succeeded,” use the terms “attempted suicide” and “completed suicide.”
  • Don’t say a person is or was “suicidal.” Instead, use the words “a person who is experiencing thoughts of suicide” or “a person who has had a previous suicide attempt.”

–Source: Toni Donnelly, Family Involvement Center

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Lynn Trimble

Lynn Trimble is a Scottsdale writer and the mother of three grown children. Her reporting on childhood mental illness has earned state and national awards.

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