Armen Bacon

Armen D. Bacon: In the face of teenage suicide, a plea for courageous community conversation

An image symbolizing National Suicide Prevention Day (Sept. 10). The yellow ribbon represents the effort to prevent teenage suicide.
An image symbolizing National Suicide Prevention Day (Sept. 10). The yellow ribbon represents the effort to prevent teenage suicide. CREATIVE COMMONS

As a columnist, I rarely meet my readers in person, but I often receive notes and emails, some lighthearted and appreciative, others more serious and written with urgency.

Because of my track record for writing about the grim but very human aspect of loss, I wasn’t completely surprised when an old friend messaged me about writing a column on teenage suicide.

He lives in Kingsburg, a close-knit community where a string of recent losses have shaken residents. Reading his words jolted me, so much so that I found myself back in that weird spot wondering how young minds can find such dark places.

Hesitant to start researching, reluctant to put real names to statistics, not sure I was up to crafting this column, I somehow knew I couldn’t stop writing. With help from social media, I quickly found fresh, sorrowful posts written by Kingsburg High students, friends, a youth minister. One, in particular, beckoned me.

Chelsea Jones, a Kingsburg High graduate now studying at University of California at Santa Cruz, instantly replied to my message request, offering her phone number. With voices quivering, we spoke in quiet hush tones of unresolved grief. I learned that her brother, Tague, had died in a solo car crash in June 2013.

These recent losses were especially painful since one of the boys was a close friend of her brother’s. As she spoke, my mind drifted to the families who now permanently reside in that unthinkable Twilight Zone of terminal heartache.

This essay is being published when school is near the finish line, a time when everyone goes separate ways. How will the school community continue coping, I wonder. It’s a month generally associated with celebrating, partying, reflecting on the future.

What if students experience bouts of depression, survivor’s guilt, a ripple effect resulting in excessive drinking, reckless driving? There are, after all, dangerous and tempting vices to anesthetize pain.

The thought of that scared me, so I reached out to Leann Gouveia, executive director of Fresno Survivors of Suicide Loss, an organization courageously founded in 1985 by the Gallagher family as a result of their teenage son’s suicide. For 30 years, Fresno SOS has offered emotional support to those who have lost someone to suicide.

Consider the facts:

▪ The No. 1 cause of suicide is undiagnosed, untreated depression.

▪ Suicide is the third-leading cause of death among youth.

▪ Suicide is insidious. You cannot see, touch or hear it but it is there — a death from the inside out.

“Let’s face it, life is hard,” said Gouveia. “We all need a mental health plan.

“Recognizing our stresses, knowing our limits and boundaries, understanding when pain exceeds our ability to cope — if a person has symptoms of depression, i.e., loneliness, emptiness, desperation, for more than two weeks — they need to see their doctor.

“With teenagers, there are many risk factors. Feeling like they don’t fit in anywhere. Bullying. Family discord. High-achievement pressure. Breakup of a romance.”

Then she added one more tip, sound advice for all of us navigating this thing called life: “We all need three people in our back pocket — the kind we can call in an instant when we’re in emotional crisis.”

I sat pondering the weight of her words, grateful for the guiding light and wisdom of so many who’ve traveled this path, and then I thought again about the students and parents in Kingsburg. Returning to Chelsea’s Facebook page, I read her most recent post, one born of love and hope:

“To everyone who is gone, and all of you who are still here, hurting, and broken, this is what I tell you:

“As far as any of us know for certain, this is all we have. One chance. Use it. Death takes away any chance you have at doing that forever. Life does not have a reset button. You are more resilient than you know. Hold on.

“Losing my brother was the worst thing that has ever happened to me, and while I am very young, it would not surprise me if it ends up being the hardest and most painful thing I will ever experience in this lifetime. It has been two years and it still hurts just as bad as day one.

“People like to use the phrase, ‘It gets better.’ Sometimes things do not get better. Sometimes things get worse but things will change. And things often do, amazingly, work themselves out. The pain may not go away, but you will learn how to carry it. You will become stronger than the pain.

“And last but not least, you are loved. In the times when you feel most alone, you are loved. You are loved. You are loved. You are loved.”

As a writer, parent and former educator, I write these words acutely aware of the challenges we face ushering children toward a bright future and getting them to adulthood in one piece. The suicide rate among teenagers has risen dramatically over the last decade. We mustn’t trivialize psychic distress or confuse it with normal teenage angst. Hopelessness and despair, when unrecognized and untreated, can result in human loss.

When this involves a teenager — we lose tomorrow.

Armen D. Bacon is a writer and co-author of “Griefland — an Intimate Portrait of Love, Loss and Unlikely Friendship” (Globe Pequot Press, 2012) and a collection of essays, “My Name is Armen — a Life in Column Inches.” armenbacon@gmail.com, @ArmenBacon

How to get help

Fresno Survivors of Suicide Loss (SOS): (559) 322-5877 or www.fresnosos.org

National Suicide Prevention Hotline: (800) 273-8255 (TALK)

Central Valley Suicide Prevention Hotline: (888) 506-5991

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