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Valley Perspective

The Youths Most at Risk

September 28, 1997

Questions linger whenever a person takes his own life, but those questions are more painful and the answers more elusive when a child kills himself. So it was last week after the suicide of an 11-year-old Encino boy. The death highlights the troubling growth in the number of children who commit suicide: Between 1980 and 1994, the national suicide rate for 10- to 14-year-olds jumped 120%.

What drives a child to choose death is as varied as the children themselves, but often the event that sparks the fatal act would be considered trivial by adults. In last week's case, the boy was reportedly upset over breaking up with a girl he met at summer camp. In a modern world where parents work or simply aren't around, where television shapes ideas about everything from sex to violence, impressionable children face enormous pressure to conform and perform.

What's too often missing, though, is the message that a child's life matters. As suicide-prevention counselors like to point out, suicide is a permanent solution to temporary problems. It's a lesson kids need to hear more often--and they need to hear it as early as possible from both parents and teachers. Already, junior high and high school students in the Los Angeles Unified School District hear it as part of regular suicide-prevention programs. So do some elementary students. Some studies show that districts with quality programs have cut suicide rates in half. Yet more than half the state's school districts don't offer formal suicide-prevention programs. That should change. As young people are confronted with ever greater pressures and conflicting messages, they should at least be prepared to cope with them.

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