CLEARFIELD — Nearly two dozen counselors were on hand at Clearfield High School Wednesday after the news of two separate student suicides reached the student population and the surrounding community.
"The mood here is somber," said Davis County School District spokesman Chris Williams, who spent most of the day assisting at the high school. Police confirmed that two male students, ages 15 and 16, had killed themselves at their homes, the first occurring Sunday and the second, early Wednesday.
"It's heartbreaking to me to see that kids are struggling with such deep emotional issues that cause them to think that life is not worth living," said Vivienne Knighton, the mother of senior Jeffrey Knighton, who was friends with the student who killed himself Wednesday.
"I can't imagine what makes them feel so hopeless and that they have no friends and no future," she said. Her son and others were still reeling from the news Wednesday afternoon. Jeffrey Knighton recalled moments of when the two pals recently created mischief, involving the destruction of a bag of gummy worms, on the school bus.
"He was full of energy, full of life. I just don't understand why," he said.
According to a 2009 Behavior Risk Analysis Survey conducted by the Utah Department of Health, one in four students in Utah reported feeling sad or hopeless. About 16 percent had seriously considered suicide, the same survey reveals.
Williams said it was the first time in his career that two student suicides had happened in such close proximity. Clearfield's principal distributed a brief statement that was read throughout the school in each class Wednesday morning informing students of the deaths. Eighteen district and community counselors were brought to the school to help students who were grieving.
"You have a lot of young kids here, who have probably not dealt with death before," Williams said. Details regarding the deaths were not released.
Police are investigating whether the two students knew each other, but any relationship between them remained unclear Wednesday.
In 1987, following three suicides the previous year at the school, Clearfield High School established a club that stressed the importance of students communicating with their parents and peers. The Building Esteem in Students and Teens program later turned into an elective course, which included guest speakers, role playing exercises and field trips, to inspire unity and camaraderie between students.
Williams said he did not know if the class was still a part of the curriculum. The school's course catalog does list a life skills class and a Peer Support class.
Studies have shown that such outreach efforts encourage parents, teachers and students to be attentive to troubled teens, according to the American Association of Suicidology, an organization dedicated to suicide prevention and intervention. Across the nation, a teen commits suicide every two hours, according to 2009 AAS data.
The association also reports an ongoing high rate of suicides among young people in the Rocky Mountain area, a six-state region where suicide rates are collectively the highest in the country. Utah ranks ninth in the nation for the number of suicides of all ages.
Child psychiatrist and local suicide expert Dr. Doug Gray said a variety of factors can come into play, including depression and related mental health issues, but also altitude and genetics.
"Altitude can affect the pH of the brain and some people with mental illness can recover and adapt to high altitude and others can't," he said. Many people, Gray said, don't seek help because of a stigma associated with treatment of mental health issues.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK, is available to anyone looking for someone to talk to.
Many students at the school were speaking with counselors Wednesday, trying to cope with the death of their peers. The help had been on-hand since Monday, after news of the first suicide became known. The second death was just "shocking" and somewhat "overwhelming" for Jeffrey Knighton, who said he goes out of his way to befriend someone new every day.
"Everybody at the school today said they loved him," he said. "What if he knew that before this happened?"
Knighton's mother said she tries to encourage her children to talk through whatever emotions they are experiencing.
"It's exhausting putting your kid back together again," she said. "But we have to be there for them because, obviously, they feel that no one else is for them at times."
Jeffrey Knighton said he will continue to point out good things about his peers. It is important, he said, that they know they are loved and cared about.
"You should never feel like you should kill yourself, ever," he said. "This is one bump on the way to where you are going. You're going to go somewhere far beyond these minor emotions that feel big now, but are so small in your lifetime."
Contributing: Nkoyo Iyamba
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