Deadly taboo: Youth suicide an epidemic that many in Utah prefer to ignore

Published: Sunday, April 23 2006 12:00 a.m. MDT

Crista Eggett sits in the room of her brother, Blake, a talented Riverton High School flute player who committed suicide Oct. 28, 2005.

Keith Johnson, Deseret Morning News

Kelly Sowell, 17, athlete and poet, Grand County High School, died Nov. 11, 2005

J.J. Serassio, 16, Eagle Scout, Riverton High School, died Nov. 15, 2005.

Sierra Dawn Woodward, 15, sophomore, American Fork High School, died March 28, 2006.

Buried in the details of carefully worded obituaries, the tragic clues emerge.

"Sierra chose to leave this life and return to what she believed would be a better place."

Every 11 days, a Utah teenager like Sierra succeeds in taking his or her own life. With teen suicide in a leading role as a killer of Utah young people, state officials could be mounting a full-frontal attack on the problem.

In fact, the opposite is true.

Suicide is clearly a taboo subject. And to talk about youth suicide is to wade into the complicated, mysterious arena of mental health and the delicate world of teenage emotion.

This is a place few want to go.

No one wants to venture into the dark realms where Utah young people — with the possibility and potential they represent — meet despair and self-destruction. Virtually no one wants to explore factors that contribute to a teenager's private decision to end his life with a gun, pills, carbon monoxide or a rope.

But those who are closest to this issue say we must.

Therapists, educators, "suicidologists" and parents who have lost children to suicide say this community must begin to talk about teenage suicide in a more honest way in order to change the state's infamous reputation.

Utah leads the nation in suicides among men aged 15 to 24.

"We have too much to lose if we don't work together and speak out about this silent epidemic," said Utah first lady Mary Kaye Huntsman, who has turned her attention to the issue in recent months.

Young women are not immune. In fact, females attempt suicide three times as often as males. Males, though, use more lethal means and are four times as likely to wind up dead.

Utah also has the 11th highest suicide rate — 14.3 deaths per 100,000 people — in the nation over all age groups, according to the most recent data from the American Association of Suicidology.

A former surgeon general who recently spoke in Utah about suicide prevention said he was impressed with the state's warm and friendly people, said Ken Tuttle, director of psychiatry at Utah Valley Regional Medical Center.

But he added, "In New York, we kill each other. In Utah, you kill yourselves."

Brandon Cannistraci, 19, big brother, died Sept. 13, 2004.

Blake Eggett, 17, flute soloist, Riverton High marching band, died Oct. 28, 2005.

Martika Bate, 15, honor roll student, East High School, died Jan. 27, 2006.

The number of elderly people who take their own lives is still higher than the number of teenagers who do so, but the rate has stayed about the same since 1960, said Dr. Doug Gray, a University of Utah child psychiatrist and expert in teen suicide. Meanwhile, the youth suicide rate here has doubled, tripled and looks like it will quadruple.

"It's one thing to consider an 85-year-old person who suicides because of medical problems," Gray said. "We think of that in a very different way than when a cute 16-year-old girl hangs herself in the basement."

"It is a significant health problem among adolescents, and that's something that has a significant impact on our community," said Todd Grey, Utah's chief medical examiner.

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