In fewer than three months, Lake Forest High School students Edward Schutt, Will Laskero-Tesocki and Farid Hussain have been struck and killed by a train. To date, only Hussain's cause of death has been ruled a suicide by the Lake County Coroner's Office.
The tragedies galvanized a group of local ministers with the help of organizations and agencies geared to helping adolescents to combine on a program titled “Helping Parents Through Difficult Times” at the Gorton Community Center auditorium. The panel of mental health professionals included Carole Hynes, program manager for Evanston Day School, which is part of the NorthShore University HealthSystem, department of psychiatry; Todd Nahagian, manager of CROYA in Lake Forest; and Julie Reichenberger and Nancy Perlson from the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention.
The standing-room-only audience also heard lead speaker Robert Edgar, a child and adolescent psychiatrist in Chicago, tell them that talking about suicide does not draw a person into a suicidal state.
“In fact, someone suicidal may be relieved that someone is talking about it,” Edgar said. “So please, please ask. You won’t push the process along. You may actually help it.”
Nahagian, manager of CROYA for the past 17 years, said parents need to create an environment so that if they ask their children about suicidal tendencies, they know the parents want to listen.
“And what active listening tells, is that you sit and actually listen to the process and figure out what people are going through,” Nahagian said. “Until you actually sit, listen and appreciate what that person is going through and try to show empathy, then they won’t want to come to you. They don’t think they have that basis and strength to come to you for that support because they don’t think it’s there. The teenagers I know, they get it. They can see it a mile away whether you are really interested or whether you’re just asking the question.”
'Depression Is a Brain Disorder, Not a Character Flaw'
Edgar broke down suicidal behavior into three areas: depression, manic depression and anxiety disorders.
Depression shows itself in adolescents in many forms, including withdrawal, giving up interests, falling grades, shutting out friends, and an increase or decrease in sleep.
"Depression is a brain disorder, not a character flaw," he said.
Manic depression often takes the form of bipolar disorder, which is genetic, while anxiety disorders like irritability and agitation often are discounted.
“It’s one of the cardinal features of people who attempt to commit suicide,” Edgar said.
Edgar noted that 90 percent of suicides in all age groups are from mental illnesses, and that suicides occur early in a depressive episode.
“That’s why it’s important to keep our antennae up to identify depressive mood disorders,” he said.
Beyond Just a Bad Day
Perlson echoed Edgar in saying depression is a brain disorder, but it should not be construed the same as having a bad day.
“Having a chemical disorder and having depression is a whole lot different than having a bad day,” she said. “Most of your kids will have a bad day. A bad day is not clinical depression. True clinical depression is an illness.”
During the 75-minute program, parents presented several questions to the moderator, the Rev. Christine Chakoian of the First Presbyterian Church of Lake Forest. Cahokia grouped common questions together to give each member of the panel an opportunity to add their expertise.
The Cluster Effect
Several questions focused on the trio of teen deaths, and whether one led to another.
“One suicide does not cause another suicide,” countered Perlson. “When you see these clusters, you have individuals separate that are at high risk themselves. It’s not that it’s copycat. It’s not contagious. It’s not linked that way. With those kids who are at risk, it brings them more at risk unless we stop it. Unless we can get to the point where we can address it with our kids.”
North Shore Success: Athletics or Academics
Perhaps just as telling was Hynes’ response to a question about the influence of community and societal factors on suicides. Hynes said the North Shore creates a narrow definition of success for teens.
“On the North Shore, kids are often defined by their academic or athletic success,” she said. “A lot of parents have trouble sometimes accepting when their child does not fit the model that they want them to be or what they were. Not every kid is defined by academic success.
“Some kids are artists, some are mechanics, some are landscapers; not every kid is going to fit the mold, and that it’s important for parents to be open to the idea that ‘Maybe my kid is not going to be taking AP classes, not going to one of the higher level schools,’ ” she added. “ ‘Maybe they will go to technical school and I’m OK with that.’ The point is for them to be happy and to feel good about themselves, and that what they are doing is important to them.”
Be Gentle But Firm
What about the teen who refuses to see a psychiatrist and pushes back?
“Try not to approach them alone,” Hynes suggested. “If you are really worried about your kid, let people who know your child know that so you don’t feel like you’re doing this all by yourself. If you feel like your child can’t be saved, that’s a trip to the emergency room or a 911 call to let your child be treated by professionals.”
Edgar added, “For someone who doesn’t want to get treatment, always be gentle and set limits because the stakes are very high. If there is tremendous resistance, you’re real power is coming in as a family.”
Parental empowerment also can come at the school level by asking a social worker to pay extra attention to a child.
“That opens up the door,” Nahagian said. “It seems like so many times we want to shove things under the rug and not be vulnerable. When you open the door, say you’re vulnerable and need some help, need some support, those conversations I have every day at CROYA with parents are the most meaningful things. By saying you’re vulnerable, it is an opportunity to get better. We need it on a grand scale.”
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