Going to prom, signing yearbooks and attending graduation are all part of the high school experience. But about 4,400 teens each year don’t reach these milestones because they die from suicide.
The 25th Chicago Police District is working with community youth to discuss ways to prevent this silent epidemic that is the third-leading case of death for teens.
Last week, a youth forum on teenage suicide was held at the 25th Area District headquarters at 5555 W. Grand Ave. Officers Cynthia Flores and Anne Zamzow hosted a group of 15 students for a frank discussion on an issue that receives little attention and is often misunderstood.
“On any given day, you might miss the signs,” Zamzow said.
The officers welcomed Ginny Trainor, business development director at Riveredge Hospital, to lead the three-hour presentation and discussion. The students, who ranged in age from 8th graders to high school seniors, had the chance to get together, socialize over pizza and talk honestly about what Trainor calls a “taboo topic.”
The group watched a short film “Choices” that explored the case of two teens who contemplated suicide and the steps their friends took in trying to help. The teens shared their reactions and debated whether the friends of the two teens took the right measures in intervening.
“Teen suicide is important, and there isn’t a lot of education,” said John Tacuri, a freshman at Lake View High School.
And teen suicide isn’t just something we see on TV or in movies, said Eric Ellstion, a freshman at Steinmetz High School. It’s a very serious problem, Ellstion said.
Even though Tacuri and Ellstion attend different schools, they both said they would tell their track coaches if one of their friends at school was showing signs of suicide.
The world is different for today’s teens than the generation before, said Trainor, but adults should try to remember how challenging those years can be and not be so quick to dismiss what teens are going through.
“We have to remind ourselves what it felt like as teenagers,” said Trainor. “When kids are feeling suicidal, they feel they’re not being heard.”
And teenagers themselves should also be aware of the signs their friends might be exhibiting, Trainor said.
“If you have a friend who’s depressed one day and all of sudden happy another, that’s a day you should be concerned,” said Trainor. “Sometimes you have to be willing to risk a friendship; if you don’t say anything, it’s something that can weigh heavy on you.”
It’s really hard to ask for help, said Trainor, but teens who are suicidal often reach out in ways that might not be obvious. Four out of five people who complete suicide have previously attempted suicide in the last 12 months, said Trainor.
In 70 percent of cases, the person told someone within one hour of their intention to commit suicide, Trainor said.
It is crucial to know the warning signs, said Trainor. Some of those signs include:
• Suicidal threats – this doesn’t always mean outright statements but comments such as, “It doesn’t matter I’m here.”
• Previous suicide attempt/s
• Sudden changes in behavior, like a drop in grades or loss of interest in activities
• Final arrangements – this might include telling others the songs someone wants played at the funeral or who should or should not attend
• Making rounds – making a point to say goodbye to the people who are important to the person
• Giving away prized possessions
Teens who feel suicidal need people who will truly listen and willing to step in, said Trainor. It’s important, she said, if you feel your friend might be suicidal to be direct and insist on the truth.
Trainor has presented at groups like this one over the past year and said she’s excited by the opportunity to reach out to schools across the area starting this fall. This September, she has eight trainings already lined up, thanks in part to a new suicide prevention bill approved by the Illinois General Assembly earlier this year.
The bill, HB4672, will provide at least two hours of training to teachers and other school personnel, working with students grades seven through 12, to identify the warning signs of suicidal behavior in teens and the appropriate methods of intervention.
Illinois is the fifth state to pass the Jason Flatt Act.
Teens shouldn’t have to go through this alone, and there are places to go to for help, Trainor said. These people might include a favorite teacher, parent, clergy member, guidance counselor, medical doctor or other trusted adult, she said.
If you or someone you know needs to talk, call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or Riveredge Hospital Assessment and Referral Department at 708-209-4181.