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Access to Gun in Suicide Attempt Questioned : Psychology: Many adolescents who try to take their own lives suffer what they perceive to be a terrible rejection. Experts say there are often signs for which parents can watch.

November 02, 1994|JULIE MARQUIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ALISO VIEJO — Like many teen-agers who attempt suicide, the 16-year-old boy who shot himself in the head Monday during a class at Aliso Niguel High School recently suffered what he perceived as a devastating rejection or loss.

Especially in adolescence, when a person has little experience at putting life's low points in perspective, a breakup or a death in the family can set off suicidal thoughts and, much less often, an attempt at self-destruction, experts say. If a teen-ager is impulsive or is using drugs and alcohol, the risk is even greater, said Michael Peck, a clinical psychologist in West Los Angeles who has written a book on youth suicide.

Suicides among teen-agers have increased fivefold over the past 40 years, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Peck attributes much of the rise to substance abuse. In 1990, the national suicide rate for teens was 11.1 per 100,000. Many more make unsuccessful attempts.

But experts say suicide in Orange County still is relatively uncommon--13 were recorded last year--and it is highly unlikely that a single event--such as a breakup--would prompt an attempt in an otherwise well-adjusted teen-ager. Suicides most often are preceded by a history of depression, family problems or troubled peer relationships. Many times, a successful suicide is preceded by previous attempts.

There often are signs to watch for: mood swings, sudden behavior changes such as giving away possessions, withdrawal from family and friends, loss of appetite and poor sleeping habits. Sometimes a teen-ager will explicitly warn others--as the 16-year-old Aliso Niguel student did his friends--that he is planning to kill himself, in this case because the boy's girlfriend broke up with him.

These warnings, experts say, should always be heeded. Although threats most of the time will not come to fruition, it is important to err on the side of caution. Peers, mental health professionals say, should tell a responsible adult, even if it means risking the friendship and breaking a pledge of confidentiality.

"This is an area where you break that promise," said Dr. Louis Gottschalk, founding chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at UC Irvine.

Experts said suicide attempts generally are a private affair, rarely taking place in a public setting such as a high school classroom. They speculated that the 16-year-old at Aliso Niguel wanted to make a public display of his anger toward his former girlfriend or perhaps put her to shame as a way of avenging the rejection.

"She has to be reassured that it had to be more than just her rejection that made him do this," Gottschalk said.

Several experts expressed concern that the public nature of the attempt and the media attention it has received might inspire "copycats." One UC Irvine professor refused to discuss the issue because of that fear.

Others said the incident illustrates the importance of discussing the issue of suicide with teens in high schools, as part of the curricula. Jacqueline Price, a spokeswoman for the Capistrano Unified School District, said that the district already has developed its own curriculum addressing suicide and that upper-class students are taught about the warning signs.

Grim Statistics Young men accounted for most of the 87 teen-age suicides in Orange County during the past six years. A look at teen suicide in Orange County: *

1988 Males: 14 Females: 2 *

1989 Males: 10 Females: 5 *

1990 Males: 11 Females: 6 *

1991 Males: 9 Females: 6 *

1992 Males: 9 Females: 2 *

1993 Males: 11 Females: 2 Note: 1994 statistics are not available. *

By Sex Males: 74% Females: 26% *

By Age 18-19: 58% 16-17: 32% 15 and younger: 10% Source: Orange County Sheriff's Department; Researched by CAROLINE LEMKE / Los Angeles Times

Warning Signs

If a teen-ager exhibits some of these symptoms, parents should seek immediate professional help through referral services or counseling centers. The signs:

* Changes in eating and sleeping habits

* Violent outbursts

* Alcohol or drug use

* Preoccupation with death

* Expressing intent to commit suicide

* Marked sense of isolation

* Taking more risks

* Feelings of despair and loneliness

* Saying goodbys to friends and giving away possessions

* Sudden lift in mood of a normally depressed teen-ager

GETTING HELP

The phone numbers listed below offer counseling to troubled teen-agers as well as referrals to parents concerned about a child:

* Suicide Prevention, Hotline Help Center: (714) 778-1000

* Crisis Suicide, Mental Health and Drug Abuse: (714) 834-6900

* Youth Crisis Hotline: (800) 448-4663

* New Hope, 24-hour service: (714) 639-4673

* Psychiatric Assessment Team, 24-hour service: (714) 643-5150

* Teen Connection, free support for teens: (714) 543-8481

Sources: Individual crisis centers, Times reports; Researched by CAROLINE LEMKE / Los Angeles Times

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