March 15, 2005
The summer of 2002 began like any other for 15-year-old Skye Romero-Lay. She spent her days relaxing in the sun and her evenings listening to the sweet sounds of her friends’ band.
Then, two nights before the start of her sophomore year at Deer Valley High School, Skye’s world turned upside down.
She was alone in her bedroom, on the phone with her boyfriend, Dan, and could hear his fingers frantically striking his computer keyboard. He mentioned the name of their good friend, Sean. And that instant messages he’d been receiving talked about how Sean may have committed suicide.
He’d missed band practice that day. Skye knew he’d never miss practice, Sean loved music — and the band — too much. But Skye hadn’t heard from Sean all day. That wasn’t normal. Should she call him? What would she say if he answered the phone? What would she do if he didn’t?
Too soon she learned the truth. Sean, 15, had shot himself. Skye never saw it coming. He was one of the popular boys in school, one all the girls wanted to date. He left behind many friends struggling for answers to difficult questions while wrestling with guilt — what could they have done?
Skye had heard about other teens taking their lives, but had no idea what it meant to know someone who had committed suicide. Until now. Now it was personal. Her best friend, someone she adored, was gone.
In the wake of Sean’s death, Skye worked hard to hold herself — and the group of friends that once included Sean — together, and focus on the positive memories. But it wasn’t easy, and as the days passed, she spent nights alone with her thoughts. She felt guilty, angry at Sean for leaving too soon and sad about the hole he’d left in her life.
Skye thinks about Sean often, smiling when she remembers the times she walked through the mall, hand-in-hand with Sean and Dan as they’d sing to her. Every day she tries to focus on the good memories, but heartache lingers, especially this year as high school graduation approaches.
Sean won’t be there.
And last October, Skye’s world crashed again. Her 16-year-old cousin, Alex, killed himself. A sea of teenage faces filled the memorial service.
"It was," Skye says, "Sean’s funeral all over again."
AGES CREEPING LOWER
Suicide is the third-leading cause of death among 15- to-24-year-olds nationwide, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Arizona Department of Health Services statistics indicate the risk here is reaching epidemic levels: Arizona ranks fourth in the nation for suicide among youth 14 and younger and seventh in the nation among 15- to-24-year-olds.
It’s estimated nearly 20,000 teens in Arizona attempt suicide each year. "Suicide is a huge problem in Arizona, in part because of the transient nature of the state and partly because there isn’t a lot of community," says Michelle Moorhead, executive director of Teen Lifeline, a nonprofit agency in Phoenix that provides suicide prevention outreach to young people in the East Valley.
Despite the high rate of teen suicide in Arizona, there is little money spent on behavioral health in the state, making prevention and intervention difficult, Moorhead says.
Teen Lifeline volunteers counsel anonymous callers struggling with issues from family conflicts and abusive relationships to pregnancy and suicide. From 2003 to 2004, the number of calls made to the hotline increased almost 40 percent — suicide- and depression-related calls were the most common.
Many Teen Lifeline volunteers from across the East Valley have felt the effects of suicide in their lives. A 17-year-old Gilbert student says her best friend tried to commit suicide more than once when they were in eighth grade. A senior from Scottsdale says a boy she knew killed himself at age 13. The next year, two more kids from her middle school committed suicide.
"Teens, unfortunately, they don’t correlate, ‘If I do this, I won’t be around.’ They don’t see it as final," Moorhead says. "They are looking for a way to cope with complex issues and problems, and they see this as an answer."
Parents are rarely sounding boards or sources of help, especially when feelings of hopelessness are strong enough that suicide seems like an option.
By the time someone begins to think about suicide, he or she has likely struggled — unsuccessfully — with more than one serious issue.
Nikki Kontz, intervention specialist at Teen Lifeline, says a decade ago kids ages 16 to 18 called the hotline concerned about the same issues teens as young as 13 are calling about today. Boys are four times as likely as girls to complete suicide, and some segments of the population are at a higher risk — gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered kids often feel more hopeless and helpless than others.
But there is no model of a teenager at risk. In the past year, several schools across the Valley have lost students to suicide: Mountain Pointe in the Tempe Unified School District, Horizon High School and Shadow Mountain in the Paradise Valley district, Mesa High and Mountain View in Mesa, Ironwood High School in the Phoenix school district, and at least one school in the Scottsdale Unified School District.
It’s a district policy in Mesa, for example, not to memorialize suicide victims with large bulletin boards or memorial pages in yearbooks — counselors don’t want to glamorize the issue. But David Shuff, director of guidance and counseling for the Mesa school district, says pressure from parents or religious organizations to keep the incidents quiet can stifle counselors’ abilities to effectively reach grieving students.
At all Mesa schools, counselors are available to students after a suicide.
"For lack of a better word, we to set up triage at the school for the primarily affected kids," says Shuff. "Then we work our way out from that circle."
While close acquaintances of a suicide victim are most deeply affected, teenagers who simply know of a student who committed suicide can be shaken as well.
"Even those kids can really grab on to that and that can rattle their worlds," Shuff says.
OUT IN THE OPEN
Fountain Hills is a pristine town with a peaceful aura. But inside the local community theater, the mood this month turned dark when teen suicide took center stage.
"Mumblety Peg" wrapped up a three-weekend run on Saturday, bringing suicide to the community in a true-to-life exploration of one teen’s struggle to live. It opens as main character Colin Russell (Derek Kaufman) prepares to make his last decision on Earth — to slit his wrists inside his high school.
"No more sickness, no more strife. No more pain. No more shame. No more life," Colin sings.
Saved, momentarily, by a sarcastic janitor, Colin then replays scenes from his life that left him feeling small and stupid.
"I can’t even do this right," Colin finally says about the suicide attempt that is repeatedly interrupted.
On the edge of his final moment, the teen feels alone in the world. But looking back allows Colin to recognize two faces willing to help him all along. This helps him make a decision — life rather than an untimely death.
"Mumblety Peg" is the brainchild of Ross Collins, a Phoenix father of two who wrote and directed the show after suicide began to surface in his own teenagers’ lives. It’s a show intended to open the lines of communication between parents and teens regarding the often-ignored topic.
"As a parent it frightens me because when you’re outside of it, it’s just background noise," Collins says. "Then it’s people you know."
He heard his kids, Lorin and Annie, talk more frequently about friends of friends who attempted or completed suicide. One kid coolly told Collins a girl from his school who’d just completed suicide "decided to reboot."
Collins was shocked by their casual attitude about suicide. "I want (teens) to reach out for help. Whenever they get a thought, stop and listen to the words. Bounce it off someone else," Collins says. "You can still say no. You don’t have to stay on a course of action that’s self-destructive."
EMPACT Suicide Prevention Center
For information on programs and services, call (480) 784-1514.
For help call, Suicide/Crisis Hotline (480) 784-1500 or (866) 205-5229.
(602) 248-8339 or (800) 248-8339. www.teenlifeline.org
Arizona Suicide Prevention Coalition: 6411 E. Thomas Road, Scottsdale. For information call, (480) 944-4407 or visit www.azspc.org.
For help call (480) 784-1500 or (800) 273-8255.
About 20,000 teens in Arizona attempt suicide each year.
Arizona ranks first in the nation for teens who complete suicide with guns.
Since 1985, Arizona has ranked in the top 10 states for teens who complete suicide.
Statements like: "I just want to go to sleep and never wake up"
Statements indicating worthlessness or desire of death like "Everyone would be better off if I were dead"
Depression or sadness lasting for more than two weeks
Sudden and drastic changes in personality
Giving away personal belongings that have special meaning
Saying a final goodbye to family and friends, or leaving a goodbye note
Using drugs and alcohol and increased impulsivity and the risk of suicide
If a friend talks about suicide
--Listen. Don't give advice or try to find a simple solution. Really listen to what they are trying to tell you.
--Be honest. If your friend's words or actions scare you, say so. Your discussion will not encourage your friend to go through with their plan. Let your friend know you care.
--Share feelings. At times everyone has felt sad, hurt, or depressed. You know what it feels like. Let your friend know that they are not alone and that you care.
--Get help. Don't keep this secret. Try to get them to talk to an adult they trust. If they won't, talk to someone yourself or call Teen Lifeline.