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Teen Suicide: We need to talk about what’s killing our kids

Arizona’s teen suicide rate has increased by 30%
Published: May. 19, 2022 at 6:00 AM MST|Updated: May. 19, 2022 at 4:50 PM MST
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If you or someone you know needs help, the hotline is 24/7 — 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or visit the website at suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) -- Summer starts this week for school kids across Arizona, bringing a lot of stress and pressure for students. With at least 6 teen suicides at Valley high schools over the last month, parents are worried about losing more kids in a cluster contagion. It’s not the first time Arizona has seen a spike in teen suicides. Pediatric epidemiologists say suicides are as transmissible as any other virus, and we must do more to protect our kids.

Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

There’s a reason why May is Mental Health Awareness Month. You’ve got finals, ACTs, SATs, college acceptance confirmations, next steps, and moving on. All that puts even more pressure on kids who are already stressed out.

The latest numbers show the U.S. is losing 20 teens a day to suicide. That’s an entire classroom of kids every day. The CDC says suicide is the second leading cause of death for kids 10-24, up 30% across Arizona. And there’s a new push now to take something that’s working in Utah, to save kids here.

Katey McPherson from Chandler left 20 years in education to tackle the problem full-time. “Stress is contagious. Depression is contagious. Suicide is definitely contagious,” said McPherson.

The pain is still fresh for Tracy von Aspen. “Carson was quiet, but he had a funny streak,” said von Aspen. Her son Carson committed suicide in 2018, 24 days after graduation and 28 days before his 18th birthday. A varsity basketball player at Glendale Prep, Carson was ready to enlist in the military to become a mental health counselor.

Tracy is a nurse. “You know, I’m trained in CPR, I’m trained in advanced neurovascular life support, I’m trained in trauma life support. We’re not trained in mental health first aid,” said von Aspen.

She didn’t see any obvious warning signs. “None of it really made any sense,” said von Aspen. There was no note, no answers. “That’s what’s so heartbreaking for me if he’d only known how anybody would have come and helped him,” said von Aspen.

Sometimes there are very overt red flags. Corona del Sol track star Marcus Wheeler’s spiral is now a tragic postmortem on social media. Nine days before graduation, his desperate tweets escalated quickly, from “I hate this feeling” to “what besides beer takes pain away” and “can’t sleep at all.” He shared his fears and concerns on social media, saying things like, “life has fallen apart in front of my eyes, “It’s all my fault,” “help,” “I want my life 3 months ago back,” and “No motivation to do anything,” until his final tweet before coming to campus with a gun to kill himself was “there is going to be a suicide in the school right now.”

“There’s no mystery as to how he was doing,” said McPherson. “In isolation, those things maybe meant nothing, but together, they meant a whole lot of something.” Three other teens at the same school took their lives in quick succession right after that in 2015. “Stress and depression and anxiety are contagious,” said McPherson.

McPherson’s tracked at least 63 youth suicides since then, most in just the East Valley. “We talk about suicide; that’s the end. There’s always a runway,” said McPherson. “There’s always, you know, things that lead up to it where we can poke in and say, ‘hey, you know, are you OK? Are you thinking of hurting yourself?” She says you need to be that direct. “They just want you to listen; they don’t want you to fix it,” McPherson said.

She gets about 100 calls a month and still sees a suicide every six to eight weeks locally. It’s a huge concern, she says, especially knowing each one can trigger others. In addition, experts estimate that 20% of school kids have undiagnosed mental health issues. “We want kids to go from wellbeing into a little bit of distress to stretch and grow those coping skills,” said McPherson.

She says it’s important to let your kids fail, then give them grace. “We’ve carefully engineered their every move. Their playdates, their elective choices, ‘I’ll help you write your college essay,’ and if that’s my journey as a kid, then when have I failed? And when I do fail, do I pick myself back up, or do you do it for me?” said McPherson. “We all have to come together at the same table and acknowledge that this is an epidemic.”

Jennifer Nielson, a mother living in Gilbert, knows firsthand. “We’ve got to do better. We’ve got to do better. And we’re got to quit minimizing how painful this is,” Nielson said. “As parents, we have to educate ourselves and understand the things that we say that are hurtful.”

Her daughter Hadley is gay. “I found out by accident. I overheard her in her room talking to a friend,” said Nielson.

Photos of Hadley, Jennifer Nielson's daughter.
Photos of Hadley, Jennifer Nielson's daughter.(Jennifer Nielson)

It’s something their LDS faith considers a sin. “She believed that she was going to be in Hell while we’d be in heaven, a different place, and so that was a real, tangible fear for her. So not only are we doomed in this life, we’re going to be doomed in the next life too,” Nielson said. “We often hear suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.”

Jennifer says we need to see how it’s far deeper for LGBTQ teens trying to make sense of something they cannot change. “We take them to this religion for peace and support and what she was hearing was pretty much the opposite of that,” said Nielson. The suicide rate for gay teens is more than 40% higher than their peers.

Suicide Hotline for LGBTQ Teens & Young Adults: 1-866-488-7386

Jennifer helps counsel kids and parents in her church, and not everyone is open to the conversation. “I’ve had people tell me that I’m going to Hell, that I follow Satan because of my stance,” said Nielson. “But that’s what my daughter lives with all the time; without even saying a word, people will judge her. “We’ve got to do better. And we’ve got to quit minimizing how painful this is.”

Her best advice for kids is to look for someone safe you can trust to talk to. “You are loved, and you have so much to offer the world,” said Nielson. “It doesn’t define who you are as a human being, your kindness, your gifts, your talents, your strengths, what you have to give back to the world. You have infinite worth that’s inherent within you.”

And McPherson says if you have a friend in trouble, “You have to put the friend before the friendship.” Getting them help is more important than breaking the promise not to tell.

At 16, Louisiana cheerleader Emma Benoit seemed to have it all -- friends, modeling, and good grades. “There was a lot more to me than I let on,” said Benoit. “I can remember having anxiety as far back as elementary school.”

She was on hold with her mom on the phone, talking about some of those issues, when she grabbed a gun and shot herself. “I heard the ringing in my ears. I tasted the gunpowder in my throat, and all the while, I was in that immense feeling of regret,” said Benoit.

When she came to, diagnosed paralyzed from the neck down, Emma finally saw she wasn’t as alone as she felt. “They met me with just the utmost graciousness, and they just really wrapped me up in support and love,” said Benoit. “It’s really hard when you’re in the trenches to fully feel like you’re valued enough to remain in existence.”

It took intense physical therapy and counseling to get out of the hospital. Now, she’s taking steps to heal herself and help others heal. She just screened her new documentary, My Ascension, with families here in the Valley. “Silence will never keep you safe. It didn’t keep me safe,” said Benoit.

“Talking about it actually helps,” said McPherson. She’s working on launching a new app this fall, giving kids 24/7 access to licensed clinicians. From anonymous text chats to a mobile crisis dispatch, it’s modeled off the “SAFE UTAH” app that is already seeing great success. “You can’t argue with 583 active rescues statewide,” McPherson said of the app’s success in Utah.

She’s already got a commitment from state lawmakers to work this into this year’s budget and a promise for federal CARES Act grant money from Maricopa County. McPherson is also working on a new ad hoc committee with local lawmakers to look into better long-term solutions to stop teen suicides.

She wonders if an anonymous app could have helped her son. She runs two groups on Facebook, AZ Parents Supporting Suicide Survivors and Carson’s Crusaders. She’s getting ready for this year’s annual Carson’s Crusaders basketball tournament and pushing to make mental health screenings a mandatory component for all school sports physicals.

Another layer of outreach is anything to disrupt that internal struggle so kids know they’re not alone. “If there’s any way we can pause that, you know, we may be able to save some kids,” said VonAspen.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is supposed to transition to a three-digit hotline (988) this summer. There’s been some concern, though, about getting 988 properly staffed.

McPherson knows recruiting qualified counselors will be a challenge. She’s working with the East Valley Institute of Technology to launch a pilot of the Arizona app this fall. Meantime, she encourages families to talk and reach out, reminding the teen lifeline hotline 602-248-8336(TEEN), that’s printed on the back of more than a quarter-million student IDs across Arizona, is 24/7 for parents too.

In addition, Chander City Councilman OD Harris and others are hosting a candlelight vigil after two teens died by suicide in Chandler last weekend. Harris is asking for pastors, therapists, and leaders to attend the vigil. It will be held at the Downtown Chandler Lawn in front of Chandler City Hall on Friday at 7 p.m. For more information, visit facebook.com/odharrisaz.

If you or someone you know needs help, the hotline is 24/7 — 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or visit the website at suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

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