Teen, young-adult suicides on the rise

One day short of his 22nd birthday in May, a popular Malibu native locked himself in the bathroom of his Escondido Beach residence, put a 410 shotgun to his head, and pulled the trigger. Last September, a young man from El Segundo, an apparently untroubled 17-year-old student at Santa Monica High School was found asphyxiated in his car in Corral Canyon. Both suicides devastated their family and friends, and, like all teen and young-adult suicides, the losses left the aching question: “Why?”

Both deaths also became statistics in a phenomenon that is not unique to Malibu nor Los Angeles: teen- and young-adult suicide has become a national tragedy.

In a recent letter urging the National Rifle Association to expand its gun safety education to include instruction involving teen-age suicide, Rep., Mary Bono, (R-Palm Springs), pointed out that in Riverside County last year, there were 53 suicides out of 558 attempts by young people. In the United States, Bono added, the suicide rate for young people ages 15-24 has tripled in the past three decades.

On the surface, the young man who died here last May, a graduate of Colin McEwen High and an avid surfer, diver, and fisherman, was seemingly secure in his life and career ( he and his partner’s charter boat participated in the rescue efforts following January’s Alaska Airlines crash off the Channel Islands). But, according to the L. A. County Coroner’s office, he suffered from a two- and-a-half year addiction to the powerful pain-killer Vicodin, which stemmed from a near-fatal car accident and the subsequent never-ending pain.

Suicide, of course, can be motivated by situations far more benign than a car crash. Dr. Bruce Lockwood is a psychiatrist who has practiced all of his 16-year career in Malibu, and is also the psychiatrist for Pepperdine’s Student Counseling Center. Within his practice, he treats young people in whom suicide warning signs have been noticed by their parents, friends, or teachers.

“I think one of the reasons for the rising suicide rates,” Lockwood said in a recent interview, “is the breakdown of the traditional family with both parents working all the time, and kids left more on their own.

“Parents are unable to monitor their children as in the past, and people seem to be doing drugs at an earlier age, too,” he added. “Today, many kids tend not to learn how to cope with problems, and often take a drug to avoid pain.”

As a sobering example of the kind of latchkey upbringing often found in Malibu, one interviewee, who preferred remaining anonymous, related a story of a teen-aged son of a high-profile actor and Malibu resident who used to scour his neighborhood seeking someone–anyone other than his dad’s housekeeper–just to talk with.

Another problem may be unique to affluent communities like Malibu.

“Maybe I’m biased by being in Malibu,” Lockwood said, “but it seems there is also a lot more pressure to succeed. It’s hard to say, though, that suicidal tendencies are any more prevalent here where there are a lot of affluent families, than it is to say drugs are any more prevalent here than in the ghetto. There are different kind of pressures (like gangs and drive-by shootings in the ghetto), and different kind of drugs.”

Seeing the signs

No one in our community is responsible for the health and safety of more teens than Michael Matthews, the 38-year-old principal of Malibu High School.

“Teen suicide is an issue that raises its head every year in our school,” he said. “Knock on wood, but I’ve never had a student commit suicide in a school where I’ve worked, but I’ve had many students put on alert; students whose behavior worries us, and whom we watch very carefully.”

At Malibu High, the alert process is finely honed, involving not only Matthews, but two full-time, state-credentialed counselors as well as interns working through the Jewish Family Services organization. “First of all we involve the parents,” Matthews said. “It’s the most important thing we can do.”

“A student may come to a teacher or counselor expressing worry about someone, or a teacher may see a dramatic change in some student’s behavior or attitude, or they may see something in the student’s writing,” he explained. “That’s a very common way of spotting potential trouble.”

Another warning sign, according to J. T. Manwell, a deputy at the Malibu/Lost Hills Sheriff’s Station and member of their Juvenile Intervention Team, popularly known as the “J-Team,” occurs when a child starts giving away beloved possessions (see suicide warning signs box, page A1.)

“One of our counselors will then have a very low-key session with the child,” Matthews says. “It may lead off with a question as simple as ‘Tell me how you are?’ and go on from there. Sometimes a student will be honest, but, more often, they’re not. The counselor goes to the parents immediately, and we notify the teachers.”

Three cases a year “would be a high number,” adds Matthews, whose school population numbers 1,200. That includes the Middle School composing grades six through eight, and whose 11- through 14-year-olds the principal sees as possibly more vulnerable to suicidal tendencies than the more visible older children.

“I’ve said that until they’re juniors, they’re only about 75 percent human,” he laughs.

Unlike a notification of drug use (which parents often deny, says Matthews), the principal said the school’s warning about possible suicidal tendencies are taken very seriously.

“When we make that call, every parent’s heart skips a beat.”

For Lockwood (who adds anti-social behavior like a “pissed-off” attitude, and the tendency to get into fights all the time to the warning signs), parents are also the crucial element in suicide prevention.

“In all the years I’ve been in practice,” he said, “I’ve never had a kid call and say ‘I want to see someone.’ It’s always the parents who bring their child in.”

And many times, they’re not too happy about being in Lockwood’s office.

“Most teenagers or adolescents aren’t going to want to talk about it, and they’ll tell me they’re here because they’re forced to be here,” he said. “But then, hopefully, they might relax enough to come back a second time.”

Above all, Deputy Manwell adds, do everything you can to keep open the lines of communication with your child.

It’s also a perilous mistake, Lockwood said, to write off a child’s threat of suicide as simply teenage self-dramatization.

“I’ve actually had people tell me ‘I know my kid won’t commit suicide [just] because he threatened to do it.’ If anyone tells me anything like that, I’ll often put the child in the hospital,” Lockwood said. Unlike school officials, Lockwood has the power to commit a patient to a 72-hour observation stay in a psychiatric hospital.

“They may think I’m wrong, and they may get pissed off at me, but I think taking it seriously is always the better way to go,” Lockwood said.

“It’s difficult enough with teenagers because its so easy to say, ‘That’s just a difficult teen,'” he added, “but you can’t ignore it.”

One hurtle to overcome with a suicidal teenager, according to Lockwood, is that many of them do not look at it as a final thing. “It’s probably easier to say that the person is in such pain that they have a narrow view of the future,” he said. “They have reached a point of hopelessness where there is no light at the end of the tunnel, but they also frequently believe that somewhere, somehow, they’ll come back. Older people who have lived through more situations have a greater sense of the finality of it all.”

According to the psychiatrist, girls are more prone than boys to suicide.

“If you look at the surveys,” he said, “females, who tend to use pills or slit their wrists, try suicide more often, but males, who tend to use guns, succeed more often.”

Lockwood also suspects that many deaths considered accidents are, in fact, suicides.

“It’s hard to know for sure,” he said, “but I think a lot of the time when young people drive off cliffs, or into a tree or pole, that’s the case.

“They’ll be drinking or using drugs, and whatever inhibitions would otherwise stop them from doing it disappear.”

Other help is available as well; however, it took this reporter more than 50 phone calls to find it (see sidebar). Nevertheless, doubt frequently remains.

“When we’re watching a student,” Matthews said, “we’re scared to death if he or she doesn’t show up for school one day. You just never know. You try to do what you can, but sometimes it seems you can never do enough.”

The father of the Malibu youth who died adds: “I guess my son’s pain from the accident was more terrible than anything we will ever know. Post-traumatic stress disorders are not just isolated to war veterans as many people believe, but can be the tragic residue of accidents, rapes, even child abuse. Building awareness, and finding answers, is a cause which is going to be the rest of my life’s work.”

(His family has established a foundation whose mission is to raise public awareness of such post-traumatic stress disorders.)

The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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