Suicide Rates On The Rise
TAMPA - It was Sunday,
Memorial Day weekend 1998, and Gregory Chapman, 10, was stampeding around
his north Tampa home, playing with the family dog.
Gregory could get rambunctious sometimes
because he had Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. His father, Mark
Chapman, told the boy to put up the dog, go to his room and play quietly
for a while.
Gregory did as he was told. Later that
afternoon, his grandmother, who lives with the family, realized things
were unusually quiet in his bedroom. She found Gregory hanging from his
bunk bed post, his yellow karate belt around his neck. He was pronounced
dead an hour later at the hospital.
About every two hours in this country, a
person under 18 commits suicide. It is the third leading cause of death
for people 15 to 24, behind only unintentional injury and homicide,
according to statistics from the national Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention. The suicide rate for people 10 to 14 years old - Gregory's age
group - doubled between 1980 and 1996, as did the rate for black men 15 to
19 years old. For every teen who commits suicide, 100 others attempt it,
No one who knew him ever thought that King
High School junior Rashad Anthony Blackmon would become a suicide
statistic. In the fall of 1998, the 17-year-old had everything going for
him. A star football player, Rashad made a play that won the homecoming
game. His reputation as a sharp dresser and ladies man was solid on
Just five months later, on April 12, 1999,
the last night of spring break, he took a gun from his father's apartment,
walked to the pool, sat in a deck chair, and shot himself in the head. His
family and friends still wonder why.
"It could've been anything," said
his sister, Anika Blocker, 20, a student at Florida State University.
"I've asked myself a thousand times, "Could it have really been
Why the explosion
There are plenty of theories as to why the youth suicide rate is
exploding. One factor is better reporting and forensic practices that
identify suicides that in the past would have been classified as
Research by the
federal government and private groups such as the American Foundation for
the Prevention of Suicide list numerous additional reasons for the
Locally, add to that
list a shortage of psychiatric beds for children.
Of all the reasons, experts agree that guns
are the chief culprit. For teens in Rashad's age group, 15- to
19-years-old, firearm-related suicides accounted for 96 percent of the
increase in the suicide rate over the last 20 years, according to figures
in U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher's report, "A Call to Action to
"When depressed people, especially
children, have access to guns, they become completors instead of
attemptors," Satcher said during an interview.
Easy access to guns and the impulsive
nature of children are a deadly combination, say mental health
professionals. Young people are still learning coping skills while dealing
with the turmoil of adolescence, said Nancy Pape, program manager and
psychologist for Children's Crisis Services, a local evaluation and
treatment program for uninsured children.
Paula Gaskins, Rashad's mother, believes
her son didn't really mean to kill himself. She thinks he was upset about
a bad report card.
"I think it was an accident. He didn't
mean to do it. He loved me too much. He didn't mean to hurt me like
this," she said.
Failure to live up to expectations - their
own or someone else's - is a common factor in many teen suicides.
And since they spend most of their day at
school, it's not uncommon for suicidal children to vent their frustration
on campus, as illustrated by the murder-suicide rampage at Colorado's
Columbine High School in April 1999.
Florida schools have been teaching life
coping skills and suicide prevention in middle school and high school
classes since 1984, when the state Legislature passed the Florida Youth
Emotional Development and Suicide Prevention Act. In 1990, suicide
prevention became a required part of teacher certification in this state.
That training proved useful on more than
one occasion for Peggy Johns when she was teaching middle school.
Signals in school work
Suicidal students may express their intentions in homework assignments or
comments to classmates and teachers. Johns, now health education
supervisor for Pinellas schools, took any mention of the topic seriously.
"First, I would always talk to the
student about it," she said.
There are very clear policies in Tampa Bay
area schools on how to handle a student threatening suicide. The
principal, guidance counselor and school resource officer must be
notified, as well as a parent or legal guardian.
However, it's not unusual for parents to be
in denial about a child's emotional problems, said Liz Valdez, guidance
supervisor for Hillsborough schools.
"If the parents are not completely
cooperative, we can bring in a counselor and social worker and decide as a
team whether to Baker Act a child," she said.
The Baker Act is a Florida statute that
allows law enforcement and mental health professionals to have a person
involuntarily hospitalized for psychiatric treatment for up to 72 hours.
Knowledge can be a danger
Teaching children and teens about suicide is an important step in
preventing it, but it must be handled carefully so that education doesn't
become implicit encouragement, some experts warn.
"There is a tendency for survivors as
well as health care professionals to reinforce the self-injury behavior of
clients by the attention and overreaction to their death wishes, threats
and gestures," says material on the Suicide Prevention Triangle, a
Web site for mental health professionals.
The surgeon general concurs.
During the weeks after Rashad's suicide,
King High students were free to leave class at any time to go talk to a
counselor about their feelings.
"It was rough," said Charles
Davis, 18, a longtime friend of Rashad's who just graduated. Davis and
another longtime friend, Ashley White, 18, who recently graduated from
Hillsborough High's International Baccalaureate program, said Rashad's
death made them look differently at life.
"I've learned not to let insignificant
things get to me," White said.
Katherine Lazear, a researcher at the Louis
de la Parte Florida Mental Health Institute at the University of South
Florida, did an extensive statewide study on youth suicide that was
presented to the Florida Legislature last year. Her findings mirror those
of the surgeon general, the prevention foundation and SPAN, the Suicide
Prevention Advocacy Network.
"It's going to take a comprehensive
approach" to reduce the youth suicide rate, she said.
"So many times we look to one agency
to take care of it when it's going to take a cooperative approach from
parents, teachers, coaches, ministers, everyone."
Karla Jackson covers
She can be reached at (813) 259-7606.