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Teen Suicide and Feelings of Failure

Times Staff Writers

“Dear Family,” Velia Huerta Victorino began her handwritten letter. “Sorry for what I did, but I had to. No one liked me anymore. All my friends left me because what people were saying.”

At the bottom, Velia drew a heart, signed her name and, in a postscript, wrote, “I was 15.”

A few hours later, as her mother slept nearby, the girl hanged herself from a beam in the living room of her family’s San Bernardino home.

In the 10 weeks since Velia’s death, her mother and sister have angrily blamed the suicide on what they said were years of bullying by other girls that eventually became unbearable.

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But although it is tempting to look for easy answers, the tragedy -- like most teen suicides -- isn’t simple to sort out.

Her death, a month after a friend of Velia’s hanged himself, has unsettled the working-class neighborhood in which she lived, prompting school officials, neighbors and classmates to try to puzzle out what drove Velia to kill herself -- and what could prevent similar tragedies.

From conversations with Velia’s family and others who knew her, and from documents in her school file, a portrait emerges of an isolated, tormented girl who fought often with others and had been suspended from school several times, once for threatening a teacher. Velia also had had a troubled home life with a mother who struggled to help control her daughter’s anger.

In 2002, more than 4,200 Americans aged 10 to 24 committed suicide, making it the third highest cause of death in that age group. Most, experts say, suffered from depression or other mental illnesses that left them vulnerable and unable to cope. Velia may have been no different, according to several experts.

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“The combination of mental illness, the perception that you have a problem that is unsolvable and coping skills that don’t work tends to lead to death,” said Joan Asarnow, a UCLA psychologist and national expert on teen suicide.

Born into a family that dates back generations in the blue-collar streets of San Bernardino, Velia was the youngest of five children. When she was little, her parents divorced.

Over the years that followed, the family moved frequently, subsisting on welfare, child support payments and Social Security. By the time she turned 12, Velia had attended at least three elementary schools.

As early as second grade, records show, Velia had “behavioral problems” and was struggling to read and write. Teachers described a girl who could turn in moments from sweet to angry and who had trouble making and keeping friends.

Her mother, Evangelina Huerta, doesn’t dispute the description. “That was just my Velia,” she said, “like a Jekyll and Hyde. There were times when she was as sweet as an angel and times when I was like ‘God, where did this child come from?’ ”

A second-grade teacher commented in a report, “Velia does a lot of teasing and hitting.... She needs peace-building skills,” and by fourth grade, her records show, Velia was frequently reprimanded for hitting others and acting out in class. Throughout elementary and middle school, she consistently missed more than a month of classes each year.

As she grew into a teenager, Velia’s family continued to disintegrate around her. In 2000, an uncle was killed in a drive-by shooting, and soon after, her grandmother was hospitalized with cancer.

In 2002, her closest brother, Mario, was sentenced to seven years in prison for stabbing a friend who had allegedly attacked Velia’s older sister, Angie.

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“Her brother being sent away was devastating for her,” Huerta said. “It was like someone being dead.”

The same year, the family was evicted from its home after falling more than 15 months behind in rent.

The instability and loss seemed to take a toll on Velia. She began trying to impress girls by picking fights and acting tough, according to school assessments and her neighbors. Her aggression led to frequent confrontations in which she was slapped in the hallways or jumped by girls after school, friends and her mother said.

The anger management classes she was required to attend did little to help. In one particularly bad brawl, police were called to school after Velia hurled a chair at a group of girls, her mother said.

“It is so easy to look at girls like [Velia] and just see a bully,” said Rachel Simmons, author of “Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls.” “We forget that inside is a girl who needs help.”

A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that more than 60% of high school students who attempted suicide also were violent toward others.

Her mother tried to help but was unsure what to do.

Once, Huerta said, when Velia was in a rage, she took her daughter outside and challenged her to a fight, hoping it would help her get out some aggression.

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“Velia said, ‘OK, you hit me first,’ ” Huerta recalled. “So I pushed her and she punched me.... But I allowed it because this is the only way that she could learn. I said to her, ‘Get it out of you. It has to stop now.’ ”

But it did not stop.

In November 2003 came an even more serious warning sign. After a teacher discovered Velia scribbling a list of the “top ten ways to kill yourself and love yourself,” Velia’s mother got a call from the school about it, she said. “I said, ‘She’s just writing it. She’s not going to do it.’ ”

Velia was placed under psychiatric evaluation for several days at a Chino hospital. Asarnow, the UCLA psychologist, emphasized the importance of such interventions for children contemplating suicide. Adolescents who have made previous suicide attempts, she noted, are at risk of trying again to kill themselves.

When Velia returned to her classes, she was still far from emotionally healthy. In an annual assessment a month after the hospitalization, school officials wrote that Velia “claims ‘nobody likes me’ at school (unable to give any reasons)” and that “she could not offer any suggestions to make her happy, other than returning to the hospital. (‘They treat me nice.’) Her drawings suggest: inadequacy, rejection, anxiety, low self-esteem, helplessness, insecurity, and poor interpersonal relations.”

But despite such obvious indications of trouble, weekly counseling sessions that followed the hospitalization were cut off in February, Velia’s father, Rudy Victorino, said.

A psychiatrist had recommended putting Velia on “some sort of medication,” but her father says he was opposed. “I said [to the doctor], ‘My daughter’s not like that.’ I don’t believe in giving kids drugs.”

By the end of last school year, Velia had been suspended from school for more than 20 days, once for threatening to hurt a teacher after he took her cellphone away in class. A judge warned her that if she was suspended again, she would be sent to juvenile hall.

With that threat hanging over her head, Velia seemed to try to change her ways. A summer school session went well, and she entered her freshman year at Pacific High School determined to stay out of trouble, said both her mother and Alyssa Vasquez, a classmate who had befriended Velia.

Other girls still challenged Velia to fight, but Velia resisted. “I’d be standing right next to her,” Alyssa said, “And she would say, ‘I ain’t even going to fight, I ain’t even going to let it go down like that.’ She just didn’t want to be like that anymore.”

And there was someone new in Velia’s life: 15-year-old Steven Vega Jr., whom she had begun casually dating, according to her sister.

On Sept. 28, less than a month before Velia killed herself, Steven closed his bedroom door, attached a thick speaker wire to a belt and hanged himself from his bunk bed.

Velia’s sister Angie said that although Velia was upset over Steven’s death, she became even more distraught when rumors spread at school that she had been the last to see him alive and had encouraged him to commit suicide.

Copycat suicides in the United States are not uncommon, especially among teens and young adults imitating friends or acquaintances who have killed themselves. Researchers have found that every year in the United States, between 100 and 200 teenagers die in these “suicide clusters.”

On Friday, Oct. 22, Angie left a note for Mike O’Connor, who runs the peer counseling program at Pacific High School and works with the school’s at-risk students, asking him to speak to Velia. O’Connor, who said he was unaware of Velia’s earlier hospitalization, called Angie to tell her he would meet with Velia on Monday.

But he never got the chance.

About 6:30 on Sunday evening, Oct. 24, Velia woke from a nap and ate some leftovers with her mother. Afterward, she called a girl she considered a friend to ask about a homework assignment. By the time she hung up, Velia was in tears. She called Alyssa Gonzalez, one of her few friends.

“She was really sad” about the phone call, Alyssa recalled. “She said that [the girl] had said that everyone at school thought she was a joke and that it would be better if she just wasn’t around.

"[Velia] asked me, ‘What if I wasn’t around? Would they stop talking about me? Would you miss me?’ I told her not to listen to them, that it was just words. She said she’d see me tomorrow.”

Turmoil in peer relationships is common for teenage girls, UCLA’s Asarnow said, but Velia’s problems with her friends do not by themselves explain why she killed herself.

Asarnow speculated that, like 90% of adolescents who kill themselves, Velia probably suffered from depression or another mental illness that left her unable to handle the strong, and typical, desire among teenage girls for friendship. She was also a teenager, and teens are impulsive.

About 9:30 that Sunday evening, Huerta walked into the kitchen to find her daughter at the table writing what may well have been her suicide note. (The next day, family members found drafts of the suicide letter in the trash.) Later, about 11, the two crawled under the heavy blankets on their mattress and turned on the television.

“Nobody likes me, Mom. I don’t have any friends,” Huerta recalled Velia’s saying. “I’m your friend,” she replied before drifting off to sleep.

When he arrived at school Monday morning, Mike O’Connor was met by Angie, hysterical and screaming, “This school killed my sister!”

O’Connor was stunned. As far as he knew, Velia had never threatened suicide. Ten days before her death, Pacific High officials had requested Velia’s records from her middle school, which would have included health reports, but it appears they were not sent. Other than O’Connor, school and district officials declined to comment on Velia, citing student privacy laws.

“There are kids who are acutely depressed,” O’Connor said. “In Velia’s case, we didn’t know. I work with kids that say, ‘I’m suicidal.’ I don’t leave their side. If I’d have known, I would have done an intervention.”

Velia’s father, a devout Roman Catholic who believes those who commit suicide will not see heaven, spent weeks after his daughter’s death going from priest to priest, finally finding some comfort from one who told him that “God loves children” and that he felt Velia’s hurt and that he would protect her.

He is still devastated by Velia’s death. “I thought I knew my daughter,” he said, “but I guess I didn’t know her that well.”


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