Talk to your kids. Don’t Shy Away From the Topic of Depression and Suicide

It’s an odd thing, but some teenagers think suicide is “heroic.” That’s exactly the word some used on Facebook to describe the death of 14-year-old Morgan Vandenberge, who took her life early May of this year. Her father Doug found her in the basement.

“Horrible. Just horrible. When I saw that she was gone, I just thought why? Why, why?  And no one will be able to answer that,” her father told us.

Clearly still in shock, his eyes welling with tears of pain, Doug talked to us about his daughter’s death, one of nine teens dead by their own hands in 18 months in Sarnia, Ont.  He bristles when he hears Morgan’s friends describe how she is in a “better place.”

“On Facebook, they say she is in a better place. She is not a better place. The better place is with all of us,“ he says.

Watch Avis Favaro’s full report here.

We traveled to Sarnia to learn more about the deaths, and possible reasons for why those just starting their lives would choose to end them. It’s hard to tell if Sarnia is just a horrible anomaly — or a canary of sorts. You hear of multiple teen suicides in poor. northern communities. You don’t often in quiet, clean, middle-class cities like Sarnia.

In addition to the 9 teen suicides, a local school trustee, Michelle Parks, says 50 other teens in the region have been hospitalized in recent months because they were at risk of suicide. No one knows why.

“They come from two-parent homes, loving families, very involved kids, sports — there is nothing to pinpoint what’s going on here,” Parks told us.

The latest Canadian statistics on teen suicides only go up to 2009 – years before the increase in cyberbullying, which experts say have compounded the social pressures on teens.  In the U.S., though, they have seen a rise in suicide – climbing from 6.3% in 2009 to 7.8% in 2011, numbers that reflect the growing attention to teen suicides reported as a result of bullying.

More troubling are the U.S stats that suggest 1 in 6 high school students has seriously considered suicide, and 1 in 12 has attempted it.  These figures are in line with what people in Sarnia are witnessing.

So maybe it is the canary in the coal mine.

Tyler Savage thinks it is a crisis, too. He’s just 16 and has gone to two funerals of teens who died by suicides – one was  Morgan. They were fast friends, so he thought, and had spoken the night before. She didn’t let on that she was so depressed she was going to end it. Tyler awoke to the shocking news.

“I didn’t want to go to school,” Tyler told us. “My heart dropped.”

Tyler, however decided to get “something going,” as he puts it, and launched a campaign for suicide prevention. It started with one rally manned by teens with signs proclaiming “Suicide Sucks” and “Someone Cares about You”.

The rallies have become an almost weekly event now in Sarnia. Along with them are yellow ribbons and wristbands, carrying the crisis hotline number in Sarnia-Lambton. They’re making the silent tragedy of teen suicide very visible.

“A lot of people don’t want to lose any more friends,” said Tyler.

He hopes with the public display against suicide, more teens will be encouraged to find someone to talk about their depression. This, say some, is the real heroism. A young man, trying to save lives of his fellow teens anyway he can.

Some experts say 9 suicides in 18 months may be just a statistical blip. They say mental illnesses often start in the teen years, which are often already difficult because of brain and hormonal changes.  It’s often tough to tease out what’s normal and what is a mood disorder.

“Kids can have difficulties with their emotions, difficulties with their thinking, and they are not sure if it is a problem or if it is a disorder or if it is a part of life. And without knowing about this, without knowing that there is help available,  they can end up going down the wrong path,” says Dr. Stan Kutcher, a psychiatrist at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

Other suicide clusters, he said, may be due to what’s called “the contagion effect”: glamourizing and copying other teen suicides.

It’s one reason why Doug Vandenberghe is willing to show the fresh wounds of his tragic loss.

“We need to get across to teenagers it is not the right thing to do. It is not heroic, it is not paradise,” he says.

Whatever the root cause for the deaths in Sarnia, there is good news. Studies suggest it is possible to prevent these young deaths.

“The data we have shows that if you can provide appropriate identification, diagnosis and treatment in primary care for young people with mental disorders that brings down rates of suicides. It is a clear relationship: improving mental health care decreases suicide rates,“ says Dr. Kutcher.

School trustee Michelle Parks is also searching for solutions. She would like to see more funding for mental health — in particular, school nurses.

“Kids in high school need to know where they can go for help,” she says.

If you are a parent, her advice is direct:  “Talk to your kids. Don’t shy away from the topic of depression and suicide.”