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Dying Too Young

The rate of teen suicide is declining nationally, but many still attempt or succeed in killing themselves.

When the aftermath of a youth suicide ripples through the community, other suicides can follow.

That was the warning counselor Bob Straub imparted to a group of parents and teenagers at Pleasant Valley United Methodist a week after a 15-year-old and a 19-year-old killed themselves in South Riding.

Friends and even strangers wonder what they could have done to prevent the act — and teenagers who never considered doing it themselves suddenly become aware that suicide is a way out.

"Kids are pretty intelligent about suicide these days," said Straub, a counselor at Meier Clinics, a Christian nonprofit with a location in Fairfax. But still, "survivor guilt" can lead teenagers toward suicide, he added.

According to the Center for Disease Control, the overall rate of youth suicide has declined slowly since 1992, but suicide is still the third leading cause of death for people ages 15 to 24. Unintentional injury and homicide lead the list.

Most youth suicides are male — 86 percent in 2001. And firearms, the method of choice in the South Riding deaths, are used by 54 percent of teens who kill themselves.

TEENS ATTEMPT to end their lives for any number of specific reasons, but there are patterns. Some do it for the attention. Some do it as an act of revenge — against a parent, maybe a girlfriend. Others are depressed.

"Kids are also impulsive," Straub said. "It's a long-term solution to a short-term problem."

The importance of time is one echoed by Carol Loftur-Thun. She's the executive director of CrisisLink, a nonprofit organization based in Northern Virginia that runs a free, confidential 24-hour hot line — 703-527-4077 — for anyone dealing with intense personal issues, including suicide.

"Suicide is a crisis situation," Loftur-Thun said, but it's "time limited. If someone can get through that time they feel suicidal, the feeling will typically subside."

CrisisLink has experienced a recent jump in suicide-related calls — a 118 percent jump. Loftur-Thun doesn't think youth suicides are necessarily on the rise — and the CDC statistics say the opposite — but rather that awareness is spreading.

Even so, the rate of youth suicide is alarming. For every suicide, according to CrisisLink, another 100 are attempted. Hispanic girls lead the pack, with an 18.9 percent making an attempt. In a typical high-school classroom, it's likely that three students have tried suicide in the last year. Ninth graders are most likely to try it.

"We all talk about how kids are growing up faster," Loftur-Thun said. "I think that's probably it. They're just experiencing so much more than they used to be."

CRISISLINK does not give advice to its callers. Instead, volunteers help callers come up with alternatives to the situation at hand, "empowering them" to change their own perspective, Loftur-Thun said.

Other options are available to distressed teens in Loudoun County. The county itself provides services with the Department of Mental Health, Mental Retardation and Substance Abuse Services. Like CrisisLink, the department provides a 24-hour emergency line, 703-777-0320. And high schools also have crisis-prevention programs.

At Broad Run, where Michaela Wegner was a sophomore before she and her boyfriend Tony Holt died on Jan. 3, guidance counselors experienced a spike in activity in the days following Wegner's death.

According to guidance chair Debbie Tindale, Broad Run will provide students with several references to mental health resources, including even another 24-hour hot line, 1-800-SUICIDE.

Ninth-graders undergo depression awareness instruction.

"They are taught in the classroom that they must always bring a friend to the attention of an adult," Tindale said.

Sadly, not all teens get the help they need. As in the case in South Riding, some teenagers manage to conceal their feelings so well that no one suspects anything, and the signs only become clear too late.

"Not all these kids give warning signs," Straub said. A full quarter of teenagers who commit suicide don't give a hint. "It just catches everyone off guard."

The best thing for parents to do, Straub said, is to build a community around their children: know their neighbors; know their friends.

Warning Signs

Signs that a teen is considering suicide, according to counselor Bob Straub:

* Changes in eating or sleeping habits.

* Withdrawal from friends, family, regular activities.

* Running away.

* Drug and alcohol abuse.

* Unusual neglect of personal appearance.

* Marked personality change.

* Persistent boredom, difficulty concentrating, decline in schoolwork.

* Complaints about physical symptoms — headache, fatigue.

* Inability to tolerate praise or rewards.

Things to listen for:

* Complaining about feeling rotten, being a bad person.

* Giving verbal hints: "I won't be a problem for you much longer," "Nothing matters."

* Putting affairs in order, giving away possessions.

* Sudden cheerfulness after period of depression.