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Teen Suicide Continues to Increase, but There is Hope in the Trenches

In a darkened high school auditorium, the tragedy and reality of teen suicide hits like a gut punch.

A short, stark video shows the parents of 16-year-old Patrick Turner grasping one another’s hands for support, speaking about their son taking his life and giving voice to their teenager’s final plea in a letter discovered after his death:

“Be nice to everyone, and most importantly, be inclusive.”

Yet that is not what is the most troubling thing on this night designed to help parents stop their sons and daughters from killing themselves.

The most troubling thing is that despite a range of efforts, teen suicide continues to skyrocket across the nation.

But there are other troubling things as well. For example, six months after the Orange County Board of Supervisors approved $600,000 to combat teen suicide, I learned bureaucrats have done little more than make plans for a plan.

Understand that on average and for the last decade, Orange County has had more than one teen suicide a month.

Instead of futzing around with what really is a paltry amount of money in a county of more than 3 million people while kids die, perhaps it’s best to give the funding to a nonprofit that will use the money – now.

Nationwide, the spike in teen suicide over the last two decades shot up 22 percent. In Orange County, it shot up a horrifying 45 percent.

It gets worse.

According to Dr. Sina Safahieh, child and adolescent psychiatrist and clinical director of Hoag Hospital’s teen mental health program, ASPIRE, there were more suicides in Orange County the first three months of this year than in all of 2018.

“Suicide,” Safahieh tells parents at Capistrano Valley High School, “is the second leading cause of death in Orange County.”

Let’s hope that with broader awareness, we can save lives instead of sitting on public dollars.

This isn’t just about kids killing themselves. It’s about combating spiraling and crushing depression.

Let’s learn from some who are in the trenches battling this epidemic.

Making a difference

Emily Pufahl is 20 years old and knows two girls in Orange County who took their lives, one in 2015, the other last year. Both were softball players Pufahl coached, and both were 13.

Yes, suicides at 13 years old.

The reasons for the girls’ decisions are in the wind. But at least two things are clear as this epidemic sweeps across America. Smartphones and their spawn – social media – play a major and exceptionally dangerous and damaging role.

To help stem the tide, Pufahl, parents and friends launched a nonprofit called Your Story Matters. The idea is that by helping teens share struggles and posting them online in an organized way, teens come to know they are not alone and that they are valued.

“We didn’t want to go to schools and throw facts at kids, because as a kid you don’t want to hear all the facts,” Pufahl explains. “We’re about letting people know that whatever you’re going through matters and anything you are going through is valid.”

For Pufahl, the second tragedy started the night of Jan. 21, 2018.

At first, the only thing anyone knew was that Emma Pangelinan was missing and it didn’t make sense. A tough softball competitor and star athlete, Emma had a terrific practice that Sunday morning, a wonderful lunch with Dad and a fun ride home listening to music.

Along with dozens of others, Pufahl scoured parks. Finally, Emma’s body was found.

Pufahl recalls the telephone call she made to Emma’s brother. “You could hear in the silence his heart breaking.”

At Emma’s funeral, the parents of the first 13-year-old who took her life told Pufahl it was time to bring to life Your Story Matters.

“You want to turn the bad into good,” Pufahl explains. “At this point, for middle school and high school kids, it’s all about appearances.

“Everybody is so focused on the things they shouldn’t be focused on.”

Now, you might reflect on your own tough times in middle and high school and wonder, “So what else is new?”

A lot.

There probably weren’t smartphones when you were in high school and that meant your peers couldn’t instantly send out photos of themselves looking like they were having a blast and you weren’t invited.

Mind you, today’s teens have access to fake brag 24/7, and feeling left out is only a click away.

Be a parent, not a buddy

At Capo high, Safahieh takes the stage with a PowerPoint jam-packed with information.

Yet even during Safahieh’s presentation, the ever-present lure of smartphone addiction rears its ugly head. Ironically, on this night it’s a mother who spends the overwhelming chunk of the evening scanning, scrolling and texting.

If this is the present, what will the future look like?

Safahieh says too much screen time can result in lower grades, less exercise, less reading, weight problems and sleeplessness.

Not getting enough sleep may seem like no big deal. Heck, we’ve all suffered from a lack of sleep. But when it’s a pattern, it’s a big deal. And when teens are sneaking texts at 2 a.m., it’s a very big deal.

“A lack of sleep,” the doctor allows, “affects mood, memory and the ability to cope.

“Just losing one hour of sleep at night,” the teen expert offers, “is huge.” Total that over a single month, and it results in a net loss of 30 hours of sleep.

Teens, Safahieh warns, are more vulnerable than adults and, with brains still forming, they have a limited capacity for self-regulation.

Prerna Rao, ASPIRE clinical program manager, explains too many parents have little or no idea what their children are doing.

“There is the illusion that home is safe,” Rao allows, “but they could be inviting a complete (virtual) stranger into your house.”

Solutions include not giving a child a smartphone until they are at least in seventh or eighth grade, having and enforcing written contracts about screen time, and relinquishing smartphones, computers and tablets at night.

Several parents ask what if their teen refuses or cheats.

Safahieh drives home her advice: “You’re not your child’s friend. You’re their parent.”

Valeri Trezise, a licensed family therapist and a member of Safahieh’s ASPIRE program, reinforces the point: “The phone is a privilege, not a right.”

Helping hands

Some 18 months ago, I wrote a series about teen suicide and had the honor of getting to know both Patrick Turner’s and Emma Pangelinan’s parents and have stayed in touch.

This week, the Turners and Patrick’s mother, Kim, let me know Safahieh and his team will be at Sage Hill on Sept. 25, and, thankfully, somewhere else after that since their’s is a never-ending mission.

On Your Story Matters, a teen who slit his wrists wrote: “I hated sharing my story, because I felt that because I had just gone through some bullying and mental health struggles when others had it worse, I didn’t deserve help.

“I was wrong. I am still struggling, but am getting better everyday.”

Please visit the Orange County Register to view the original article.