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Teen-Age Tragedy : Local Youths Appear to Mirror Grim National Trend of Rising Suicides

May 03, 1987|EDMUND NEWTON | Times Staff Writer

Jean has tried it six times. "I've got a lot of experience with suicide," she says. "Once I tried to OD on these super-strong painkillers. I took six of them and about 20 cramp pills. It didn't work, though I came real close. All I wanted to do was sleep and sleep and sleep, but they wouldn't let me. I always try to kill myself over guys."

The 15-year-old Covina girl talks about her attempted suicide in the flat, routine tones of someone describing a minor traffic accident. But she has this wounded look. Like the two other teen-agers (all of their names have been changed) sitting with her recently in a sunny nook at Sierra Royale Hospital in Azusa, Jean has the preoccupied, detached look of a plane-crash survivor.

Jean is a slicer--one who generally prefers a knife or a razor blade as an instrument--and her wrists reveal a faint, spidery pattern of scars from previous attempts.

"Most of the time I was drunk or on coke or something," she says. "I'd just start thinking about my life and how it was really going bad."

They all have suicidal episodes to recount. For Tony, it was a massive dose of an antidepressant, then a razor attack on his own wrists. Alice downed 11 of her mother's "metabolism" pills. "All I knew was that they'd hurt me," she says. "By the time they got me to the hospital to pump out my stomach, I was shaking."

Relentless Pain

They all talk about the pain, the relentless pain, which permeated their lives like a fog. "I just wanted to get out of the pain," says Tony, 15, a scowling youngster who talks in short bursts.

Teen-age suicide, with its disturbing tendency to repeat itself in deadly chain reactions, has become one of the great conundrums of the 1980s. It has generated books, Ph.D. theses, television shows, magazine articles and large quantities of dinner-table chatter. Everybody seems to have a theory as to why nine out of every 100,000 Americans between the ages of 15 and 19 commit suicide, while countless others try to kill themselves.

But no one has come up with a sure-fire remedy for stopping the episodes of destruction, such as a quadruple suicide two months ago in New Jersey in which four teen-agers asphyxiated themselves in an idling car in a garage.

"It boggles your mind," said one hospital official from Baldwin Park. "Children are supposed be happy and carefree."

All the Ingredients

It's the same worrisome problem in the San Gabriel Valley that it is in the rest of the United States. According to psychiatric and medical authorities in the region, all the ingredients are there, from colossal communication breakdowns in the home and community dislocation to the widespread availability of drugs and firearms. The numbers locally appear to be following the same rising curve as the national trend, which has shown suicides among teen-agers tripling since 1950.

All of the crushing adolescent angst is there, too. "If we have a future, it won't be much of a future," said one willowy 13-year-old, recovering at Charter Oak Hospital in Covina after impetuously swallowing 30 capsules of a leading extra-strength pain reliever.

There are no figures available to show exactly how many attempted or successful teen-age suicides occur each year in the San Gabriel Valley. But professionals in local hospitals and school districts contend, at least informally, that the problem of adolescent self-destructiveness is one of major proportions.

"We just see an awful lot of unhappy, despondent teen-agers," said Pam Eastwood, a clinical social worker who heads a program to intervene with troubled youngsters who show up at the Queen of the Valley Hospital emergency room in West Covina.

Apparent Decline

According to the Los Angeles County coroner, the number of successful teen-age suicides has actually been declining in the county in recent years. In the year ending June 30, 1985, there were 52 successful suicides in the county, compared to 56 the prior year and 71 in the year before that. But suicidologists say coroner's statistics do not always accurately reflect all the successful suicides, because some are disguised as accidents by sympathetic authorities. Suicidologists say that for every successful suicide there are as many as 200 attempts.

During the first three months of this year, the Queen of the Valley emergency room treated 38 youngsters between the ages of 13 and 19 who had tried to take their lives. "Some were serious; some were not so serious," said Eastwood. "But I take them all seriously. Even the weakest attempts can end up killing somebody."

The emergency room at Terrace Plaza Medical Center in Baldwin Park has been treating between three and six teen-agers a month for "definite" suicide attempts, according to David Watkins, public relations coordinator for the hospital.

"And there are another three to five coming in with overdoses of one kind or another," Watkins said. "They aren't necessarily suicide attempts, but they could be a preliminary experimental phase."

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