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Suicide symposium looks at adolescent needs, preventative programs

Published: Thursday, Dec. 6 2012 8:45 p.m. MST

A memorial sit on the overpass where student David Q. Phan, 14, shot and killed himself on Thursday, Nov. 29, 2012, in Taylorsville.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — The public suicide of a junior high school student a week ago added painful reality to Intermountain Healthcare's symposium addressing suicide Thursday.

The quarterly symposium drew more than 150 participants from Logan to Provo, including medical professionals and representatives from community organizations and law enforcement agencies.

The symposiums are meant to provide educational and networking opportunities to combat pressing community concerns, such as suicide, organizers said.

Mikelle Moore, vice president of Intermountain's Community Benefit Department, said it was decided prior to the symposium that the death of 14-year-old David Phan would not be addressed directly Thursday during the three presentations, which covered suicide among adolescents and adults, as well as research supporting future preventative programs.

Still, Phan's death is an example of youth suicide issues facing many Utah communities, Moore said.

"You look across the state, and many communities are now able to identify with a tragedy of a young person," she said. "I think it's really compelling people to focus on this issue."

Phan shot himself on a pedestrian bridge near Bennion Junior High School in Taylorsville on Nov. 29, pulling the trigger in front of classmates about 15 minutes after school was dismissed.

Dr. D. Richard Martini, director of psychiatry and behavioral health at Primary Children's Medical Center, reported that adolescent suicide rates in Utah are higher than the national average, with the number climbing since 2010.

As many as 1 million teenagers attempt suicide in the United States each year, Martini said.

Teen suicide is usually an impulsive act rather than a carefully premeditated one, he said, with more females likely to attempt suicide but more males likely to be successful.

Martini also referenced new studies indicating non-suicidal self injury demonstrates a predisposition for suicidal behavior.

He emphasized the role supportive families can play in preventing adolescent suicide or self-injury behavior.

Parents who strive to create cohesive relationships, spend time together as a family and involve themselves in their children's lives are more able to support adolescents and detect suicidal feelings or actions, Martini said.

"It's a real skill, I think, for parents to make a child feel as though, when they go to their parent, for that moment with that parent, there is no one that is more important or nothing that is more important than that conversation," he said.

Family support is essential in compliance and follow-up care after a suicide attempt, Martini said, explaining that roughly 70 percent of adolescents who are hospitalized for a suicide attempt attend four or fewer follow-up appointments. 

Parents and professionals assessing dangerous behavior must look at life stressors among adolescents, such as interpersonal loss, disciplinary problems or a history of physical, sexual or emotional abuse, Martini said, even though young people may not consciously connect those issues to their harmful behavior. 

Bullying can also be a significant stressor for teens, he said, for victims as well as perpetrators.

Participants at the symposium brought up questions regarding bullying, communicating with adolescents and treatment methods.   

Martini said adults concerned about possible suicidal behavior by adolescents have several options available to them, including their primary healthcare physician or support hotlines, such as Primary Children's intake line at 801-313-7711.

E-mail: mromero@deseretnews.com, Twitter: @McKenzieRomero

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