Stopping youth suicide's toll

Opinions diverge on how to reach out to children safely

April 29, 2001|By Diana K. Sugg | Diana K. Sugg,SUN STAFF

Three years ago, Abby Boehm, a shy senior from Maryvale Preparatory School, took her life. Then there were two students from Severna Park High School, and later, Lydia Vorbach-Schabb, a sophomore at Park School. Within the past several months, two Howard County teens killed themselves.

They are among a rash of youth suicides in the Baltimore area that have devastated families and put doctors on alert. School counselors are soul-searching, looking for ways to prevent other deaths. So are the parents who had to bury their children.

"I just had this overwhelming feeling that I can't let this continue," said Abby Boehm's father, Larry. "I can't let other families go through this nightmare."

But in the emotional, contentious debate over how to handle youth suicide, taking action often means taking sides.

Some parents, physicians and counselors, feeling the issue has too often been hushed up, want to talk frankly with kids about suicide. They want to put prevention programs in every school and to mourn suicide victims like those of any other illness.

But other parents and doctors, relying on research that shows one teen suicide can trigger another, say suicide isn't a topic for young people. They discourage memorials or other remembrances that might prompt teens to romanticize a suicide, and instead advise only teaching adolescents about mental illness.

"We don't really know how to talk to teen-agers safely about suicide, and we're dealing with issues of life and death, so you can't mess with it," said Dr. David Shaffer, a psychiatry professor at Columbia University. "You have to err on the side of being very, very safe. And that means you don't initiate discussion of suicide."

That puts him at odds with people such as Dale Emme, a Denver parent who lost a 17-year-old son to suicide and started the Yellow Ribbon Suicide Prevention Project to encourage kids to ask for help.

"We have a generation of kids who know not to pick up a dirty needle or run across the street," said Emme. "But we haven't told them about the thing that's killing perhaps more kids than anything else in this country."

In Maryland and nationwide, parents, schools and communities are trying all sorts of strategies, but with complicated, often contradictory research, experts say no one knows the best approach.

Even though it is rare, the rate of youth suicides has tripled since the 1950s to become the No. 3 killer of those ages 15 to 24. The U.S. surgeon general, Dr. David Satcher, has declared youth suicide a major public health problem. This Wednesday, he is scheduled to release a national report on suicide prevention.

Often no warning

In Maryland in the past three years, 93 children ages 10 to 19 have killed themselves, and another 113 young adults ages 20 to 24 committed suicide, according to the state health department. And many parents, like Abby's, had no idea it was coming.

Within her tight circle of friends at Maryvale, Abby was the girl who made everyone laugh, the one who loved cupcakes and diving and couldn't make popcorn.

The 17-year-old Monkton girl was also serious, working hard and doing well at school and sports. She wanted to be a marine biologist. But she didn't seem to have much confidence in herself.

Sometimes her parents noticed their quiet daughter at the end of the line, or outside the team circle. The Boehms did everything they could to draw their older daughter out, finding interests she loved and encouraging them, such as scuba diving, canoeing and father-daughter activities at the YMCA.

Occasionally, Abby's mother would ask her husband, "Why is Abby like this?" But Abby reminded Larry Boehm of the way he was at that age. They were convinced she was shy. "I didn't see it as anything really wrong with her," said her father, 49, a contractor.

Neither did any other adults in her life. Then halfway through her senior year, Abby grew quieter, more withdrawn. She showed little emotion, even after a scuba dive in the Grand Bahamas, where she swam near 8-foot-long sharks. After being accepted to colleges and winning a scholarship, she couldn't focus enough to choose between Washington College and Western Maryland.

A few weeks later, in mid-February 1998, Abby's father took a gun away from an acquaintance who was threatening suicide. Larry Boehm couldn't get the weapon unloaded, so he secured it in a lockbox in his basement office.

The next day, Abby's parents came home to find their daughter dead. In her suicide note, she revealed that she had been depressed for years and had attempted suicide twice. To her, the loaded .22-caliber gun was a "gift from God."

Distraught and in shock, Boehm and his wife sought out a psychologist the day after Abby's funeral. They explained her personality and behavior and reviewed her suicide note. The therapist eventually concluded that Abby had suffered from chronic depression with periods of deep depression.

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