Teen suicides are reaching record highs, forcing schools to ‘break the silence’

Stigma and guilt. Privacy and liability. Fear of copycats.

For many reasons, teen suicide and its prevention have long been kept out of the lesson plans of the nation’s schools.

But with deaths rising to record numbers in Missouri and elsewhere, area educators are beginning to open up the topic for discussion.

That’s by law, in many cases. Not necessarily by desire.

“When I went to school, students would disappear and you wouldn’t know what happened,” said Kansas City neurologist Steve Arkin, the father of a suicide victim and now a leader in a movement to engage schools in addressing the problem.

Today no suicide stays secret, he said: “With social media, everyone knows. It’s forcing teachers to be more aware.”

Parents and legislators, too, are pushing districts to confront the plethora of issues related to youth suicide: mental health, bullying, drug dependency, impulsivness and the pressures that students feel to achieve perfection.

A new Missouri law requires all schools to have strategies written by July to prevent suicides and to root out “cyberbullies,” an escalating factor to kids taking their own lives. In Kansas, Gov. Sam Brownback in 2016 signed the Jason Flatt Act, requiring schools to train teachers and staff every year to spot warning signs.

At least 18 other states have passed similar measures.

Why? Just look at the numbers in Missouri, where teen suicides have hit an all-time high.

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In 2016, 73 Missouri teenagers from 10- to 19-years-old killed themselves — the most on record, according to a Star analysis of state data.

Over the decades, the number of reported teen suicides has climbed across the state. Before 2016, the next highest spike was in 1987, when there were 66 reported suicides among that age group.

The records include details of children intentionally shooting or hanging themselves or overdosing on drugs.

So far in 2017, the Jackson County medical examiner’s office, which also covers Cass, Clay and Platte counties, has closed 11 teen suicide cases.

The spike in Missouri fits a pattern across many states. Experts say escalating suicides in part reflect a youth culture pressured to be perfect, vulnerable to social media and quick to act on impulses.

Because of the way Kansas collects its data, direct comparisons can’t be made with Missouri. But the state has seen recent upticks in suicides among the 5- to 14-year-old age groups and the 15- to 24-year-old age groups, which had seven and 71 suicides in 2016, respectively.

The most recent reported suicide in the Kansas City area was on Monday, when a top Olathe school district student took his life.

The 17-year-old junior and athlete was described by social-media friends and teachers as well-spoken, articulate, and having a great sense of humor.

Just a month before his death he attained a perfect score on his ACT college entrance exams — something less than 1 percent of students in the nation accomplish. In a conversation with The Star about his achievements, he talked of plans to major in math, engineering or computer science at the University of Kansas, Kansas State, Texas A&M or Texas Christian.

When things go wrong

Striving for perfection is an urge that advocates of youth-suicide prevention programs say is claiming lives.

Sara Prideaux was among many teens driven to be their absolute best.

She was a bright 16-year-old with a 4.7 weighted grade point average, about to start her junior year of high school at Shawnee Mission South. She served on the student council, spoke several languages and in the summer of 2015 had just returned from a 10-day trip to Spain and several days with family in Tennessee.

Three weeks later, in July 2015, Sara took her life.

Her mother, Allie Doss, with whom Sara had a close bond, never had a clue her daughter was struggling.

After the suicide, Doss combed through Sara’s belongings, talked with her friends, and learned that her perfectionist daughter had not completed a summer’s worth of Advance Placement homework and had hid the lower than expected grades she’d received on her final math and English AP tests. Within days of getting the grade report, Sara was dead.

“With teenagers I feel it is an instant reaction to something that is not going right,” said Doss.

The day Sara died, she’d been scrolling through cute cat videos on her phone “and then minutes later she was searching how to kill herself. It was as if something in her brain just flipped,” Doss said.

The grieving mom soon learned that schools act on impulses of their own.

She asked Shawnee Mission South to think of ways to honor her daughter’s life and recognize its tragic end: Host a candle-light vigil or a balloon lift, or put her name on the student memorial wall.

“But I was told no,” Doss said. “I got angry because if she had died in a car wreck they would have rolled out the red carpet.

“The schools get more involved in deaths that are more socially accepted. They think if you talk about suicide it might happen.”

Shawnee Mission Schools officials said, however, that the district does not permit permanent memorials for students or staff at its schools. Erin Little, district spokeswoman, said that suicide prevention is a priority for the district and that high schools have led awareness campaigns for students and school staff.

Such campaigns, experts say, might make parents and teachers aware that most teens do not spend a long time planning to kill themselves. They act impulsively.

Even if they have thought about it in passing, the doing usually is triggered by an event that produces feelings of failure or loss: getting in trouble, having an argument, breaking up with a partner or receiving a bad grade on a test.

Within four days of Valentine’s Day last year, in two separate incidents, two 17-year-old girls in the Kansas City area killed themselves. Both overdosed on drugs and were found in their beds. One left a note. The other had recently argued with her boyfriend.

Both had a history of depression.

‘Progress, not perfection’

Driven to erase the stigma, Doss co-founded Speak Up, a suicide prevention group that trains school staffs to recognize the risk signs and how to respond, and talks with students about how they can help, too.

Speak Up has funded a student-led suicide prevention program call You Be You, in which students promote videos, posters and social media posts that empower teens to own and love their individuality, and accept “progress, not perfection.”

Doss wants “students to break the silence about how they are feeling and to know that it is OK not to be perfect,” and to know that “issues of health and safety are not secrets you can keep.”

For example, if a friend shares that she has started cutting, that’s something to share with an adult.

“I ask students all the time, ‘Would you rather go to a funeral, or have your friend mad at you for a few days?’ ”

Now, she said, schools are starting to accept that suicide is an increasing problem they have to address with students proactively.

In recent months, more than a dozen area schools have adopted Speak Up’s You Be You campaign.

“It’s simple and a pretty easy message to understand.” said Katie Woolf, spokeswoman for the Blue Springs schools, the only district to incorporate the program throughout all of its schools. Last month Blue Springs Police in conjunction with the schools and community hosted a citywide suicide prevention town forum.

“Any major issue does not get better without talking about it,” said Kim Nakahodo, police spokeswoman. “Every suicide is one too many.”

Some caution that speaking too openly with students about youth depression and suicide carries risk.

After Rockhurst High School lost a student to suicide in April, educators turned to behavioral experts at Children’s Mercy Hospital to better understand “a topic that is evolving by the hour,” said assistant principal Chris Bosco.

“Everything we’ve been told and trained is there are limits to how you should engage kids in discussions about suicide,” he said.

He cited studies that warn of a “contagion risk” firming the resolve in some suicidal teens. Student privacy issues must be considered. And Doss of Speak Up said classroom conversations should avoid details of how a particular suicide or attempt was carried out.

Others argue the opposite. “There is no real evidence that discussing suicide leads someone to take their life,” said Don Goldman executive director of Greater Kansas City Mental Health Coalition.

For its part, Rockhurst High this year is implementing more small-group counseling sessions. One goal of the discussions is “to build resiliency skills,” said Bosco. “How do you teach kids to better cope when they are struggling?”

“Very overwhelmed”

Suicide is the third leading cause of death for young people from the ages of 10 to 24, according to the CDC. For Kansas City-area young people in that age group, suicide is the second leading cause of death.

Still, more young people survive suicide attempts than die from them. A national CDC survey of high school students found that 16 percent reported seriously considering suicide, 13 percent reported creating a plan, and 8 percent reported trying to take their own life. Each year, more than 150,000 10- to 24-year-olds are treated in emergency departments for self-inflicted injuries.

Boys are more likely than girls to die from suicide. Of reported suicides among 10- to 24-year-olds, 81 percent of the deaths were males and 19 percent were females. But girls are more likely attempt suicide than boys.

A complex brew is giving rise to teen suicides, experts say: mental illness, access to drugs, school pressures, kids not thinking through their impulses, and a society that promotes happiness, but gives short shrift to resilience.

Then there’s social media.

“A lot of adults don’t know what youth go through. They didn’t grow up in that social media world,” said Kirsti Millard, suicide prevention liaison for ReDiscover, a nonprofit community mental health center.

“If you’re young and looking at social media, it’s nothing but continually seeing positive (postings) of other peoples’ lives. And it may not be real. You’re thinking, ‘Johnny has 25 likes on his Instagram photo, and I only have two...Why doesn’t my life look like his?’”

Just a year ago, ReDiscover tapped federal grant money to launch the Show Me Zero Suicide Youth Initiative. Local school presentations — gathering students and teachers — are part of the program. A staff of two, then three, and soon to be four has directed treatment and other services to more than 200 struggling youngsters in Jackson and Cass counties.

“We’re very overwhelmed,” Millard said.

So many reasons

“Suicide does not just happen,” according to psychiatrists with Kansas City Pediatrics. Studies show that at least 90 percent of teens who kill themselves have some type of mental health problem, such as depression, anxiety, drug or alcohol abuse, or a behavior problem.

Mental illness is not always obvious, said Mickey Swade, who lost a son to suicide 13 years ago.

Swade and his wife, Bonnie, started Suicide Awareness Survivor Support in the Kansas City area. At least seven other support groups for the family and friends of people who have died from suicide exist in the area.

“If you are in your right mind, no matter how bad something seems right now, you know it could be better, in the next minute, in a day,” Swade said. “But if you are not thinking right you can’t see beyond right now. That is a mental break. So many kids today can’t see that things are going to change, that maybe in five minutes a phone call would have changed everything.”

For years, Swade said, schools slammed the door on attempts outside counselors made to come in and talk with staff and students about prevention.

Swade recalls one district in particular: “They told us ‘no’ because, ‘We don’t have a suicide problem.’ ” He noted the district this year saw two self-inflicted deaths occur in as many weeks.

Suicides happen for so many reasons.

A teen may have problems at school. A relationship falls apart. A lot of things to a parent might seem like simple kid stuff, but in a youngster’s mind though, the challenges seem hopeless.

Many youth who contemplate ending their lives have been victims of sexual or physical abuse. Or bullied via social media. Or struggling with issues related to gender and sexual identity.

“What I’ve noticed is kids in crisis getting younger and younger,” said Shari Lanzendorf, who works at Missouri’s CommCare Crisis Hotline’s Kansas City office at 16th and Main Streets.

She attributes some of teen worries to maladies coursing through all of society: terrorism, financial insecurity, broken families, political polarity, mass shootings...

“With technology they get alerts on their phones of all the bad things happening around the world,” Lanzendorf said. “It’s hard enough for adults. Can you imagine how a child processes these fears?”

Addressing the reality of teen suicide is the first step to helping sufferers find treatment, said 19-year-old Rashai Harris. She sought professional help last year after graduating from Central Academy of Excellence and enduring a bad breakup with a boyfriend.

“When I started talking about my issues, I received an outpouring of support,” said Harris, who is now taking entrepreneurial courses at University of Missouri-Kansas City.

For her and those around Harris, it took way too much time to recognize the severity of her clinical depression.

After all, she said, “I first realized I was sad when I was 7.”

Rick Montgomery: 816-234-4410, @rmontgomery_r

Mará Rose Williams: 816-234-4419, @marawilliamskc

Kelsey Ryan: 816-234-4852, @kelsey_ryan

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255)