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Published: 11/7/2010

Teen suicide: separating fact from myth

MINNEAPOLIS — Mental-health experts are troubled by a cluster of suicides involving Anoka-Hennepin, Minn., students this year — but equally troubled by public reactions and misconceptions that could hamper efforts to prevent more tragedies.

Talk of a “surge” in teen suicide, for example, is at best inaccurate. With 33 teen suicides so far this year, Minnesota is on pace for the average of 42 it has seen annually since 1990.

At worst, that misperception risks “normalizing” suicide, leading teens to accept it as a normal occurrence, said Daniel Reidenberg of the Bloomington, Minn.- based Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, or SAVE.

“Then when they are confronted or faced with a bad situation,” he said, “they think suicide is a normal response.”

So much about teen suicide is counterintuitive. The public, the media and politicians tend to seek simple answers to a complex problem. Friends memorialize the dead with bracelets and Facebook pages, which might heal their sorrow but send twisted signals to depressed teens that there is glamour or attention to be gained. Despondent teens perceive suicide as an end to their personal pain, but don't see the torture it brings to those left behind.

It is doubtful that 19-year-old Peter Fredin understood the depth or duration of pain his suicide last November would cause his family.

How his father, Tim Fredin, tried to return to a Prior Lake High School football game last month to regain normalcy — only to circle the parking lot for the first quarter until a police officer stopped him.

Once inside, Fredin leaned against a fence, away from the crowds, watching the Lakers team his son had captained two years earlier.

A nearby parent asked if his son was playing.

Fredin, 51, burst into tears.

In the rush to answer the “why” question — why teens take their own lives — there is often too much emphasis on single factors such as bullying, prevention experts say. While bullying must be addressed, Reidenberg said there is no research to suggest it is any greater a risk factor than divorce, substance abuse, social isolation, or other problems.

Mental illness is the most proven risk factor.

“There is no one single thing that leads to suicide, but a lot of people look for an easy answer when suicide happens,” said Phyllis Brashler, suicide prevention coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Health. “It's hard. The people left behind really struggle to figure out why this happened.”

Some of the focus on bullying has come nationally from the death of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers University student who killed himself after a romantic encounter with another man was posted online.

Locally, as many as three of the six Anoka-Hennepin suicides in the past year involved teens who were bullied, including Justin Aaberg. His mother has become an advocate for tougher anti-bullying laws and school policies to protect gay students. Two DFL lawmakers called for a special legislative session to address the problem.

There are a disproportionate number of gay teens dying by suicide, so advocacy on their behalf is important, Brashler said. But too much focus on one group can be problematic as well, she said. The Oct. 3 suicide of an Anoka-Hennepin student, she noted, involved someone who wasn't bullied or gay. “I don't want the public to get the sense that it's normal for gay and lesbian youth to attempt suicide,” she said.

Research has long verified the risk of “contagion” for teens, which means one suicide motivates another. Often, it doesn't involve friends, but rather teens with shared circumstances, or depressed teens influenced by media coverage or memorials to teens who died by suicide.

Four Elk River teens died by suicide in 1999-2000. Scott County reported seven teen suicides in 2005 — more than in the prior six years combined — including two Prior Lake freshmen who died in one month's time. Two Woodbury High School students died by suicide last spring.

Yet the links in suicide clusters — if they exist — are rarely understood.

The six deaths in Anoka-Hennepin were spread among five schools and had no obvious connections, said Barry Scanlan, a district prevention coordinator.

One challenge is coping with the deaths while not dramatizing them in a way that

encourages others. School administrators often discourage or limit memorials

that students place at lockers or in hallways because they send the wrong signals to depressed teens.

Social networking has added to that challenge.

Anoka-Hennepin officials intervened earlier this year when a Facebook page to a teen who died by suicide turned troubling, Scanlan said. “Kids were posting statements like, ‘You're in a better place, we'll be with you soon.' That's not what we want.”

Brashler has mixed feelings about bracelets being sold in memory of Jacob Campbell and Lisa Grijalva, freshmen in the Stillwater schools who died Oct. 12 in an apparent murder-suicide. While they include a suicide hotline number, they also memorialize the teens by including their names.

“When you think about how that memorial looks to someone who is thinking about suicide,” she said, “it takes on a different meaning.”

When Dan Krinke died by suicide in March, 2005, two weeks after a Prior Lake classmate had taken his own life, his mother tried amid her grief to discourage any more trauma. The family moved the memorial service out of the community, to Richfield, and discouraged students from making T-shirts or school memorials.

Vonnie Krinke wanted to prevent even a slim chance of others experiencing her grief. “It's been long enough that it doesn't screw with my life every day,” the mother said this week, “but it's still too hard to talk about.”

A community meeting was held after Krinke's death. Th e Fredins were there.

“I remember thinking, ‘Oh, this will never happen to Peter,'” said his mother, Kelli Fredin, because he was an accomplished student, athlete, and musician.



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