While not officially over, for all intents and purposes, summer is history. Vacation’s a thing of the past and it’s back to school. But September is not just back to school month. September is National Suicide Prevention Month; September 7-13 is National Suicide Prevention Week; September 10th is National Suicide Prevention Day. And while we might wish otherwise, suicide is an important issue for a national dialogue.
Let this sink in. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among teenagers in the country. That single fact hits even closer to the heart in Colorado where the state’s teen suicide rate of 17.6 per 100,000 is nearly double the national average. And while suicide among young people is inarguably sobering, so too is another reality and it falls directly on the state’s and nation’s fastest growing population.
The Centers for Disease Control, who studies suicide, says nearly 11 percent of Latina adolescents between the ages of ten and twenty-four have attempted suicide in the last year. And while it’s certainly a national health problem, for loved ones, distilling this reality down to its core, is also unimaginably and unrelentingly painful, too.
Suicide is the reality with no easy explanation. It is also one replete with infinite and often unanswerable questions, said the Director of Denver’s Clinica Tepeyac’s Behavioral Health and Wellness Program. “Being a teenager is challenging,” said Anna Lara-Roca. It means entering a world where the protective barriers of childhood begin to fall, and a new independence begins changing the landscape.
Lara-Roca often sits face-to-face with young girls enduring this perplexing, painful and seemingly endless phase of adolescence. There are, she said, “academic pressures, family issues, peer issues,” including bullying, the historically ugly specter that humankind has found impossible to erase along with a new, generational incarnation, cyber-bullying.
The gravity of these sessions means confronting the issue head-on. Questions Lara-Roca asks are likely as serious as any a young person has ever been asked. The responses carry an equal or even greater weight. “We don’t shy away from the subject,” she said. ‘Is there a history of previous attempts,’ ‘has there been trauma in the person’s life,’ are among the questions intended to determine just how serious thoughts of suicide may be.
The CDC says the attempted suicide rate of 10.5 per 100,000 by young Latinas leads this age group. White females are next at 7.3 percent; Latino males are at 5.8 percent and young white males at 4.6 percent. But Latinas---and particularly immigrant or first-generation Latinas---carry their own dynamic in this painful equation.
The mental health of a young person considering suicide is compounded among younger Latinas. Studies show it can be cultural, family dynamics, religion or generational. It can also be something hidden but just under the surface, said Lara-Roca. “If there’s been trauma in that person’s life---sexual, emotional or physical abuse.”
A new documentary, “Love Is Not Enough,” melds this deadly cocktail of serious mental health problems and suicide. It provides first-person hindsight---now confirmation---of Sue Klebold. Her son, Dylan, and his classmate, Eric Harris, carried out 1999’s Columbine High School massacre in which a dozen students and a single teacher were gunned down. The two young architects of the Columbine killings, Klebold and Harris, also killed themselves.
Lisa Sabey, a mental health advocate and producer of the film, sat with Klebold for two weeks of interviews in which Klebold laments the red flags that should have warned her that her son was a potential bomb ready to explode. “There were times,” said Sabey, “he seemed to draw away from her.”
Reflecting back on the months leading up to the April 20, 1999, event that shocked the nation, Klebold calmly but honestly chastises herself for not seeing what now seems so obvious. “Everyone believes you have to recognize a monster when you live with one,” Klebold says in the film. “It’s not true.”
Sabey is not shy about her advocacy for helping those battling the demons of mental health. They once nearly coerced her then teenaged daughter, now a recovering 26-year-old woman, into taking her own life.
Living with someone controlled by mental illness, she said, can create a slew of victims. “I had time to read all the books. My husband did not. But moms and dads need to be unified to give the greatest amount of support to helping a child get well.” One solution for her was to make documentaries that could be seen, shared and possibly inspire conversation. One of Sabey’s documentaries is on the eating disorder, anorexia nervosa, an eating and potentially life-threatening disorder that her daughter lived with.
Sabey stops well short of conflating her family’s challenges with those of Klebold. Still, the undeniable and inextricable link that connects them is mental illness, something she said that is either foreign or simply misunderstood by most people.
She and Klebold hope the film inspires a long, overdue dialogue. “Sue and I agreed that we need to find out a way to treat mental illness.” According to the CDC, mental illness affects nearly one in five Americans or more than 46 million people. It’s not a family problem, she said. It’s a public health issue and one that often ends in the most painful way for millions of loved ones. “There are not enough therapists or oversight,” she said.
All proceeds from “Love is Not Enough,” will be earmarked for work in mental health.