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Wheeling conference highlights suicide prevention

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Updated: July 8, 2013 2:11AM

WHEELING — For a parent of a child who killed him- or herself, the world will feel like a flood of emotions — most of them negative.

“It’s like the rain we had last week,” said Nancy Perlson, one of the three speakers invited to the May 1 program about teen suicide prevention. “There’s no way that all of the water could be absorbed into the ground at once.”

And just as the April flood left behind marks and memories that will last decades, so does suicide in the lives of those who live after a loved one dies. But where floods cannot be prevented, suicides can, though both catastrophes share another, dangerous similarity:

Both are difficult to forecast.

“There’s not much that’s universal about suicide,” said David Clark, another of the program’s invitees. “The question is ‘Why?’ over and over again.”

Eighty years of research into suicide’s causes and treatments has gotten the experts nowhere. Clark said that professionals started keeping records about suicides in 1933, and in that time rates have gone neither up nor down.

About 200 adults and high schoolers gathered in a donated meeting room at the Westin Chicago Northshore in Wheeling for a conference intended to end the string of suicides that saddened northwest suburban high schools in March. Buffalo Grove’s Lauri S. Bauer Foundation for Sudden Loss and Riverwoods’s Willow House worked together to bring in Perlson (the coordinator of survivor outreach for the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention), Clark (a professor of psychiatry in Wisconsin) and Peggy Kubert, the executive director of Erika’s Lighthouse in Winnetka, who answered questions from the audience about the maddeningly wide array of suicide’s warning signs (and false alarms) and what those left behind can do when a teen ends his or her life.

Warning signs

• The stigma: Teens are horrified of their peers regarding them as crazy, and some parents are overly concerned about what neighbors and family members will think if their child sees a therapist. This sometimes leads to chemical imbalances and other physical maladies in a child’s brain, never receiving the warranted medical attention.

• Differentiating between typical teenage hysteria and a young soul shutting down is tough. Perlson noted that all parents are “flying by the seat of your pants” and everyone feels lost in this subject.

Kubert’s recommendation: Vocalized suicide threats and actions like cutting one’s arms need at-that-moment attention, either seeing a therapist that day or going to an emergency room that night. Clark noted that this can be difficult once a teen reaches legal age — one adult cannot force another adult to seek therapy — but parents can physically drag a minor into a hospital if need be. Once a teen reaches adulthood, though, all a parent may be able to do is hope their offspring commits a misdemeanor or low felony: police intervention can force a psychiatric evaluation.

• Some depressed students will never speak about their plans or show physical marks. Kubert said parents should watch for complete changes in a kid’s total behavior pattern that lasts 24 hours a day for two weeks. A teen suddenly quitting his favorite sport may be healthy growth if he keeps his friends and other hobbies; a teen losing touch with all his peers, quitting everything, changing homework patterns and otherwise becoming someone different for a sustained period of time may be a distress signal.

• Teens are unlikely to open up to adults, or pay much attention to adults’ words. Their peers’ words are gold, though, and the speakers said this is a complicated quandary.

Teens can be trained to be effective helpers, Kubert said — recognizing danger signs, asking how their friend is feeling, listening without giving advice back.

“They think they’re mini-counselors,” she said, and they can be life-saving links between a depressed kid and professional help — but teens must also know their limits. A teenaged heart can only carry around so much of a friend’s baggage, and a teenaged mind does not yet have enough mileage to hand out a lot of expert recommendations. The best thing one teen can do for another: go out and help the kid have some fun.

Another problem: a depressed student will often swear a trusted classmate to secrecy before confessing his or her true thoughts. Often, this promise must be broken, to keep that classmate safe.

“If you tell somebody, they get over being mad at you,” Perlson said. “They do not get over being dead.”

• Depression is the prime cause of suicides, and some teens require a lot of coaxing to agree to therapy. “A great line is ‘You deserve to feel better,’” Kubert said.

• Probing into a kid’s life will be awkward, but it never prompts a kid on the brink into action.

“Talking about suicide does not make suicide happen,” Perlson said. “Those are hard questions to ask our kids. If we have the strength to ask those questions, and they come back and say ‘Yes, I’m depressed,’ then we have just averted a tragedy.”

• Therapy can take all kinds of forms — a child may need medication, or a few days home from school, or just a walk with a parent.

• If prevention never happens and a teen kills him- or herself, the lives of those left behind will never be repaired. Survivors can find a new equilibrium, but that can take years.

“This is not something they are ever going to get over,” Perlson said. “The person that you knew before no longer exists.”

Sending a message

The conference came as a response to suicides at Fremd, Glenbrook North and Stevenson high schools. Gayl Onto, a member of the executive council at Erika’s Lighthouse, said that group was founded in 1994 after Winnetka went through a similar string of tragedies.

“I like that a lot of the teens are here,” Onto said. “It’s an important thing, to have teens involved in educating other teens.”

Scott Bauer, who began the Bauer Foundation, said he hoped the guests would leave equipped to stop a fourth loss from happening.

“It’s not a great thing that we’re having this tonight, but it’s a necessity,” he said.

Kubert added that saving teens’ lives requires action that will at times make parents, classmates and educators uncomfortable.

“Don’t let it just end tonight,” she said. “We all have a part in this healing process.”

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