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Youth Suicide Rates On The Rise

GORSKI-CENAPS Web Publications
Published On: January 8, 2001          Updated On: January 07, 2002

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Youth 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, experts estimate.

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 campus.

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 that bad?'‚"

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 accidents.

Research by the federal government and private groups such as the American Foundation for the Prevention of Suicide list numerous additional reasons for the increase:
Easier access to lethal means, such as guns and drugs.
A more violent youth culture, fueled by video games, music, television and movies.
A lack of family stability; divorce, abuse.
Reduced impulse control due to technology and the rapid pace of modern life.
A romantic misconception about the finality of death.
Peer pressure and a feeling of powerlessness.
Limited access to mental health services.

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 Prevent Suicide."

"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 youth issues. 
She can be reached at (813) 259-7606.


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