Spike in teen suicides spurs action

Nonprofit, experts look to reach out to young people

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter

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photoVicki Dobbin, right, sits with her daughter, Molli Dobbin, 18, while listening to Aaron Chidester, executive director of Unite 4 Life, a nonprofit, during a free suicide prevention seminar at City Harvest Church on Thursday. Molli, a Skyview High School student, recently had a friend of hers commit suicide.

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Suicide prevention resources

• National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, a 24-hour crisis line: 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

• Clark County TeenTalk, operated by trained teen volunteers: 397-CHAT (2428) from 4 to 9 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 4 to 7 p.m. Fridays. Instant message “ccteentalk1” on AIM, MSN, Yahoo and MySpace. Post a question at http://www.ccteentalk.clark.wa.gov.

• Unite 4 Life, Vancouver nonprofit: 360-670-9468 or http://www.unite4life.com.

• Youth Suicide Prevention Program: http://www.yspp.org.

• American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: http://www.afsp.org.

• The Trevor Project, national organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) youth: 1-866-4UTREVOR (488-7386) or http://www.thetrevorproject.org.

As an eighth-grader, A.J. Hazen was a 3.5 grade-point-average student. He was a star basketball player and loved snowboarding with his buddies.

Once he started his freshman year at Battle Ground High School, A.J. changed. He couldn’t focus on homework and school became difficult. He skipped classes, which landed him in detention. He started smoking marijuana, which led to the juvenile court system.

In February, the 15-year-old killed himself.

“He was such a likeable and lovable kid that we all just thought it was just those teenager rebellious years, and we did not see the signs of suicide coming until about the last 24 hours of his life,” said Brad Hazen, A.J.’s father.

“He said the day before that all he wanted was a gun and a bullet,” Hazen said. “In retrospect, he was definitely ready to take his life when he said that.”

A.J. is one of four Clark County teenagers who have died by suicide since February. In comparison, nine young people ages 10 to 19 died by suicide from 2007 to 2009, according to data provided by Clark County Public Health.

The recent deaths have rattled families, friends and students at the four high schools they attended — Battle Ground, Union, Skyview and Columbia River. The cluster of suicides has also spurred local agencies and organizations into action.

Unite 4 Life, a local nonprofit that addresses teen depression and suicide, offered a free 90-minute suicide prevention message for teens, parents and other interested community members Thursday night. The presentation, which drew about 175 people, was followed by a 30-minute question-and-answer session.

The organization is also offering to facilitate small-group discussions for teens who want to talk about their own feelings of depression or the loss of their classmates. In addition, the nonprofit will help families in need of crisis intervention, said Aaron Chidester, the organization’s executive director.

“A string like this is just terrible,” he said. “I look at it as a major public health concern, just as if it was a spread of E. coli. Young people are dying, and we need to respond.”

Help from peers

Clark County Public Health officials are working with staff at the Clark County TeenTalk line and other county departments to better understand the deaths and how to respond.

The TeenTalk line is staffed by trained teenage volunteers. The line provides teens with a peer to talk to, whether they are in crisis or just want someone to listen, coordinator Kris Henriksen said.

“I do think that there’s very strong feelings about the way to respond to a tragedy,” Henriksen said. “Speaking as myself and somebody’s who’s had a suicide in the family, it’s important to be respectful and understanding of all the different ways people can respond.”

Mary Jadwisiak, Youth Suicide Prevention Program coordinator for Southwest Washington, said it’s impossible to know what teens who turn to suicide are feeling in the days and months leading up to their deaths. But, she said, parents, youth pastors, teachers and other adults can create an atmosphere where youth feel safe talking about depression and suicidal feelings.

Jadwisiak said adults with youth in their lives needs to ask one very direct question: “Are you thinking about suicide?”

“It’s an audacious question nobody wants to ask, but until we start talking about suicide, we can’t start talking about suicide prevention,” she said. “They want somebody to ask them. They’re waiting for somebody to ask them.”

Adults and other teens should also be aware of warning signs like irritability, withdrawal, increased drug and alcohol use and problems with authority. Teens who have sudden changes in their eating, sleeping or sexual habits and continue the behavior for more than two weeks may be experiencing depression, Jadwisiak said.

Adults and teens who notice signs must speak up, she said.

“You can’t keep this a secret,” she said. “It’s a medical condition that requires medical intervention.”

Chidester, with the nonprofit Unite 4 Life, said he hopes the outreach efforts will help young people understand their feelings and know that it’s OK to talk about them.

“So many young people, when they go through depression, they keep it to themselves,” he said. “What I tell teenagers is, ‘If you’re going through depression, if you’re thinking about suicide, it’s OK. It doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with you.’”

Teens need to know they are supported and have people who care about them, he said.

Following the two most recent teen suicide deaths, which occurred in mid-May, Skyview High School sophomore Kendall Ryder made it her mission to show her classmates she cared for them. Kendall knew two of the four teens who died recently.

The 16-year-old baked 200 cupcakes, adorned with colorful inspirational messages like “You’re never alone,” “Believe in yourself,” and “Smile.” She distributed the cupcakes to students who looked like they needed a lift.

“I just hope they realize with some negative things going on right now that we can always turn it into something positive,” she said. “That people want to help you and you are never alone.”

Brad Hazen said he believes his son took his own life because he felt too much pressure — pressure in school, the court system and his personal life.

In the end, the pressure was too much for A.J. to handle, Hazen said.

“There isn’t a day or an hour that goes by that I don’t think about him,” Hazen said. “And that’s pretty much how my older son feels, how my ex-wife feels and how A.J.’s friends feel.”

“We think about him all the time,” he said.

Marissa Harshman: 360-735-4546 or marissa.harshman@columbian.com.