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Hot Line Director Addresses Need for Network of Counselors for Suicidal Teens

June 12, 1986|DAVID HALDANE | Times Staff Writer

Patricia Grimes spent most of Easter Sunday this year lobbying on behalf of a pregnant 13-year-old picked up while threatening to jump off the end of a pier.

The first challenge, she said, was finding a local shelter willing to take the teen-ager in on short notice. The second was persuading her not to later make good her threat.

With a telephone and lots of grit, Grimes finally found the shelter, but not the persuasiveness.

So the girl, who had run away from an unhappy home life, ran away again. And two days later she turned up back on the pier, this time landing herself in a hospital for mental-health observation.

"It was extremely frustrating," said the 32-year-old Long Beach resident and executive director of a hot line based in Los Alamitos. Serving the Long Beach and Southeast areas, the hot line provides counseling and referrals on issues ranging from homosexuality to incest.

"It was a very helpless feeling," Grimes said of the way she spent her Easter.

That feeling has increased in recent years, she said, as the number of suicidal teen-agers calling the hot line has grown and grown. Of the nearly 15,000 calls received in 1984, 261 were from would-be suicides, she said. In 1985 the number rose to 414, and Grimes projects at least 600 suicide calls this year.

About 30% of them, she said, come from teen-agers.

But as their numbers change, so do their profiles. Far from being losers and low achievers, Grimes said, today's suicidal teen-agers tend to be bright, middle-class and successful. "We've got some serious problems in the world," she said, "and these kids are choosing to leave early."

And while they used to kill themselves singly and in their late teens, they now often do it in "clusters" beginning at age 8.

"Zoom, zoom, zoom--picture a freeway," Grimes said. "That's the way these kids' lives are today. They are under pressure to achieve, especially in Southern California. We all have to be blond, blue-eyed and drive a BMW; if you don't fit that stereotype, you don't fit in."

Enter the Greater Long Beach Area Teen-Age Suicide Prevention Council, an idea whose time, Grimes believes, has come. After two months of work, it is still being formed. But what she would like to create, Grimes said, is an umbrella network of caring professionals to help educate the public and provide coordinated services for suicidal teen-agers.

So far, she said, a core group of about 12 organizers--including physicians, counselors, a teacher and a police psychologist--has met twice. Among its proposed initial projects are a brochure with phone numbers of local services and an educational outreach program aimed at raising the consciousness of both teens and the adults who deal with them. Eventually, Grimes said, the organization hopes to become a general clearinghouse for all kinds of information related to the local understanding and prevention of teen-age suicide.

"Most adults will not confront these kids because it's like opening Pandora's box," said Grimes, who has a bachelor of arts degree in child development. In addition to her work for the West Orange County Hot Line, she acts as a paid consultant to area school districts, frequently speaks on teen-age suicide and said she is writing two books on the subject for a small Long Beach publisher. "People are afraid of the information," Grimes said. "They don't want to take the responsibility."

The main thing parents and teachers can do, she said, is pay attention. Listen to the clues that young people give. Watch for telltale symptoms such as radical personality changes, social isolation, eating or sleeping disorders, the giving away of possessions or the collecting of pills.

And if there is suspicion that a child may be suicidal, Grimes said, he should by all means be confronted with the suspicion and seek professional help.

"It's better to end up with egg on your face (by being wrong) than not to do anything and end up finding the kid in a gutter," she said. "Take the risk. It's an ugly problem. This involves the death of our kids."

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