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Teen Suicide and Feelings of Failure

January 01, 2005|Joel Rubin and Sandra Murillo | Times Staff Writers

"Dear Family," Velia Huerta Victorino began her handwritten letter. "Sorry for what I did, but I had to. No one liked me anymore. All my friends left me because what people were saying."

At the bottom, Velia drew a heart, signed her name and, in a postscript, wrote, "I was 15."

A few hours later, as her mother slept nearby, the girl hanged herself from a beam in the living room of her family's San Bernardino home.

In the 10 weeks since Velia's death, her mother and sister have angrily blamed the suicide on what they said were years of bullying by other girls that eventually became unbearable.

But although it is tempting to look for easy answers, the tragedy -- like most teen suicides -- isn't simple to sort out.

Her death, a month after a friend of Velia's hanged himself, has unsettled the working-class neighborhood in which she lived, prompting school officials, neighbors and classmates to try to puzzle out what drove Velia to kill herself -- and what could prevent similar tragedies.

From conversations with Velia's family and others who knew her, and from documents in her school file, a portrait emerges of an isolated, tormented girl who fought often with others and had been suspended from school several times, once for threatening a teacher. Velia also had had a troubled home life with a mother who struggled to help control her daughter's anger.

In 2002, more than 4,200 Americans aged 10 to 24 committed suicide, making it the third highest cause of death in that age group. Most, experts say, suffered from depression or other mental illnesses that left them vulnerable and unable to cope. Velia may have been no different, according to several experts.

"The combination of mental illness, the perception that you have a problem that is unsolvable and coping skills that don't work tends to lead to death," said Joan Asarnow, a UCLA psychologist and national expert on teen suicide.

Born into a family that dates back generations in the blue-collar streets of San Bernardino, Velia was the youngest of five children. When she was little, her parents divorced.

Over the years that followed, the family moved frequently, subsisting on welfare, child support payments and Social Security. By the time she turned 12, Velia had attended at least three elementary schools.

As early as second grade, records show, Velia had "behavioral problems" and was struggling to read and write. Teachers described a girl who could turn in moments from sweet to angry and who had trouble making and keeping friends.

Her mother, Evangelina Huerta, doesn't dispute the description. "That was just my Velia," she said, "like a Jekyll and Hyde. There were times when she was as sweet as an angel and times when I was like 'God, where did this child come from?' "

A second-grade teacher commented in a report, "Velia does a lot of teasing and hitting.... She needs peace-building skills," and by fourth grade, her records show, Velia was frequently reprimanded for hitting others and acting out in class. Throughout elementary and middle school, she consistently missed more than a month of classes each year.

As she grew into a teenager, Velia's family continued to disintegrate around her. In 2000, an uncle was killed in a drive-by shooting, and soon after, her grandmother was hospitalized with cancer.

In 2002, her closest brother, Mario, was sentenced to seven years in prison for stabbing a friend who had allegedly attacked Velia's older sister, Angie.

"Her brother being sent away was devastating for her," Huerta said. "It was like someone being dead."

The same year, the family was evicted from its home after falling more than 15 months behind in rent.

The instability and loss seemed to take a toll on Velia. She began trying to impress girls by picking fights and acting tough, according to school assessments and her neighbors. Her aggression led to frequent confrontations in which she was slapped in the hallways or jumped by girls after school, friends and her mother said.

The anger management classes she was required to attend did little to help. In one particularly bad brawl, police were called to school after Velia hurled a chair at a group of girls, her mother said.

"It is so easy to look at girls like [Velia] and just see a bully," said Rachel Simmons, author of "Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls." "We forget that inside is a girl who needs help."

A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that more than 60% of high school students who attempted suicide also were violent toward others.

Her mother tried to help but was unsure what to do.

Once, Huerta said, when Velia was in a rage, she took her daughter outside and challenged her to a fight, hoping it would help her get out some aggression.

"Velia said, 'OK, you hit me first,' " Huerta recalled. "So I pushed her and she punched me.... But I allowed it because this is the only way that she could learn. I said to her, 'Get it out of you. It has to stop now.' "

But it did not stop.

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