The Gathering Storm Over Suicides Among Teen-Agers

Times Staff Writer

When Randy, 40, called his mother at work last week, she knew immediately that something was wrong. Indeed it was: Her grandson, 16-year-old Randy Jr., had tried to kill himself the day before.

The attempt failed. The over-the-counter sleeping pills made young Randy groggy, but his father found him in time to summon paramedics and get him into a hospital.

And now, in the wake of the near-tragedy, perhaps Randy Jr. will get the professional therapy and family support that he has cried out for.

Fragmented Family Life

The boy's family background has been, to say the least, fragmented. His mother refuses to answer his letters and phone calls. He went through a period of mistreatment from his father's second wife and her three abusive sons. A loving foster family was forced to relinquish him because an elderly parent needed in-home care. His inability to relate to peers and choice of the wrong friends compounded academic and social problems and led to his being expelled from a school supposedly oriented to help kids with his kinds of troubles.

Since then, Randy Jr. has lived with his father, whose work causes him to relocate fairly often. The father has imposed discipline and tried to bring the boy to accept responsibility, but recently Randy Jr. has been failing in school.

(The case of Randy Jr. is true, according to some who know him, but the name has been changed to protect his privacy.)

Could Randy Jr.'s suicide attempt have been a copycat act, inspired by the suicides of four teen-agers in Bergenfield, N.J., and subsequent reports of similar tragedies around the nation? Nobody can say for sure.

But cases such as Randy Jr.'s and efforts to cope with them--or to prevent them--are attracting increasing attention from schools and those who work with young people.

Charles O. Sturdevant, medical director of Capistrano-by-the-Sea Hospital and its adolescent unit at Dana Point and a practicing private psychiatrist, thinks the copycat element exists. He recalled a series of incidents a few years ago when his practice was in West Los Angeles.

"There was once a suicide at UCLA that was followed by a whole rash of youth suicides," Sturdevant said. "Suicide may be in the minds of a lot of teen-agers. Then somebody does it and those who have been toying with the idea follow the leader."

Sturdevant also thinks that publicity generated by an incident such as that in New Jersey tends to lead to more suicides rather than sending troubled youngsters to get help. He said he sees few suicidal teens--largely because their families see their problems and seek help.

The word family keeps cropping up in talk about teen-age suicide. Michael Peck, a clinical psychologist in private practice who consults with schools and community groups, said youth suicide is a problem of middle- and upper-class young people and noted ethnic and racial differences: Suicides among those 24 and under is twice as high among whites as blacks, and higher among blacks than Latinos. Why?

"It is the family," Peck said. "Mexico has one of the lowest suicide rates in the world, along with the Philippines and Egypt. Now, none of these countries are known for economic prosperity or for their democratic way of life--but value is placed on the family in these countries."

He said publicity focused on youth suicide has good and bad effects: It has called attention to the problem, but has led to copycat suicides, clusters and pacts, which he termed "a small part of the youth suicide picture."

Some suicides among the young are mislabeled, he said, citing a case in which he served as a suicide forensic expert to determine the cause of a young man's death.

"It was a dramatic case," Peck said. "He just walked out in front of a car. But a sheriff investigating the accident commented that he must have committed suicide. In fact, the kid was not suicidal, just drunk--he had been celebrating getting engaged, certainly a happy occasion--and he just got so drunk he walked out from between two cars into the path of another."

Consulted on Play

Peck served as a consultant to producers/writers Gene Bua and Toni Bull Bua on their play, "Pepper Street," about youth suicide but with an upbeat ending. Peck said he regretted the closure last week of the play at the Backlot Cabaret Theater and applauded the Buas' determination to revive it as soon as possible in a more economically feasible setting.

As project director for the Youth Suicide Prevention School Program, an effort in conjunction with the Suicide Prevention Center, Peck provided curriculum guidelines and consulting services to the Los Angeles Unified School District's new state-mandated youth suicide prevention program. Just last week, teachers throughout the district witnessed a previously scheduled videotape to help them instruct youngsters about suicide prevention.

Peck believes strongly that the best way to prevent teen suicide is through teens themselves--"kids talking to kids." Principal Estela Pena has just such a plan in operation at Banning High School in Wilmington. It began, she said, with staff members who volunteered to form a mental health committee to identify the signs of potential suicide, make faculty and staff aware of them and teach kids how to deal with suicidal peers.

"We work through health classes," Pena said, "and we make sure not to let suicide be treated as funny or glorified. We tell them the reality and finality of suicide, that their parents are not going to turn their rooms into a shrine but rather into a sewing room or a den. We help them understand the importance of life and that, once it's gone, it's not going to come back.

"We've got kids talking--student to student, student to teacher, student to administrator. We rearrange their schedules if necessary to take some of the pressures off of them, to take them out of an environment they don't want to be in. Yes, it takes more time from counselors, and it takes their own personal time.

"We teach students to listen, to give options, not advice, and that a fellow-student's confidence is a trust. We are not going to call the student's mother and tell her. But we've got students now who tell us about another teen--'What he's saying doesn't sound quite right, he is saying things he never said before.' "

Dr. Irving H. Berkovitz of the County Mental Health Services and a psychiatrist in private practice worked with the county schools to set up a youth suicide-awareness program. He advocates increased community concern and awareness, especially among youngsters' peers: "That we must educate age-mates is a part of the state-mandated program."

At the Suicide Prevention Center, school project manager Mary Armen said that the recent New Jersey teen suicides apparently had not caused an upsurge of calls locally. But Teen Line founder Elaine Leader, a licensed clinical social worker with a doctorate in her field, said that line has gotten a lot more calls in the past two weeks, probably because of local media publicity.

"Our calls always go way up when our public-service spots appear on TV, as they have since the New Jersey suicides," Leader said. "We got 75 calls the first night, whereas 20 to 25 is normal. And, of course, not all of these deal with suicide."

Leader, who also does in-service training for county teachers, said Teen Line, part of the community-service efforts at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, also offers an outreach program and has recently produced a brochure for high school students through a grant.

Private Schools Worry, Too

While teen suicide seems not to be a problem for some private schools such as Loyola High School, Principal Father Gordon Bennett of Loyola said that does not diminish private educators' concern, especially in the face of conflicting information in the media.

"I am concerned about the treatment by the news media . . . that tells us what a tragedy teen suicide is and that it is imitative," he said. "The issue does not need exploitation . . .

"But while it has not been a problem here, I am concerned about our students. We are dealing with as fragile a population as at any school. That these kids (because of affluent backgrounds) have had it any easier than other kids is a myth. For them, expectations are higher, pressures greater.

"It frightens me. They are such beautiful and sensitive beings, and sometimes they are coping with a world that is crueler to them than we can imagine."

Few Suicidal Runaways

Facilities such as Options House and Angel's Flight find few suicidal youngsters among their clients, who are largely runaways or children pushed out of their homes. Director Dan Gumbleton of Options House said the reason may be that the youngsters he sees have already been forced into some kind of alternative action because of abuse. He said this year's statistics indicate that among Options House clients, 49% had suffered physical abuse, 39% sexual abuse and almost all emotional abuse.

"Our kids already have taken action," Gumbleton said. "They are healthy kids. Their problems may lead them into trouble on the streets, but they've taken action and they also may get help.

"Suicide comes from anger. Most don't want to commit suicide but to express their anger."

Then he echoed what almost every expert had also said: "Suicide is a pretty permanent solution to a temporary problem."

Experts suggest parents and teens seeking help contact their individual schools, County Mental Health Services as listed in local phone books, or Teen Line, (213) 855-HOPE; Suicide Prevention Center, (213) 386-5111; Mental Health Helpline, (800) 422-4PMG; Info Line (referral), (213) 686-0950; Community Helpline, (213) 541-2525.

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