Wake County

Parents hope to ensure a future for other teens

Travis and Diane Allen didn’t know whether to cling to their son or give him space.

Zane, 16, was stressed.

He had dreams of going to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, becoming a lawyer and one day running for office. So he studied for hours each night. He ran track and cross country, and he played the tuba for the band at Green Hope High School in Cary.

Zane usually handled that schedule well, his dad says. He got good grades. He had lots of friends. He was tall, athletic and an accomplished ballroom dancer. But he seemed particularly overwhelmed the afternoon of Thursday, Oct. 9, his father said, looking back on that day a year ago.

Travis Allen remembers their conversation clearly. He hugged Zane and told him that he loved him. Then, at Zane’s request, he left the teenager alone.

That was the last day the Allens saw their only son alive. He killed himself that afternoon. “He seemed normal in all respects,” Travis Allen said. “I feel like I was clueless.”

Last year, 20 Triangle youths between the ages of 11 and 19 died by suicide.

With each death, students expressed their grief on social media – “God has gained so many angels” – read one tweet after Zane’s death, and the school system worked to educate the school community about teen mental health and signs of depression.

At Green Hope, school administrators tried to stem what experts call contagion.

They surveyed students about their feelings, and counselors shared the results with parents. They called an emergency meeting with parents, during which they read aloud a letter from Zane’s father. He urged parents to take their child’s concerns seriously.

“His concern was for the future,” Travis Allen wrote about Zane. “I should have talked to him more about his stress and not discounted it. In my mind, he had no stress, and in his mind he had the weight of his whole future bearing down on him.”

Recognizing signs

Experts emphasize there’s not usually one specific cause of depression or suicide, although they note that social media offers more avenues for bullying than ever before and that the pressure to perform well academically is rising with tougher college admission standards.

These experts in suicide prevention, along with mental health advocates, say the state needs to do more to address teen mental health, including requiring public school teachers or administrators to go through training to recognize signs of suicide or mental illness in students.

“It’s pretty much left up to the school counselors to (voluntarily) train teachers on what to look for,” said Christy Welch, a counselor in Watauga County who serves as president of North Carolina’s chapter of the American School Counselor Association.

She said the state doesn’t have the number of counselors needed to meet the growing need for personalized attention. The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of 1 counselor for 250 students. North Carolina’s ratio is 1 counselor for every 387 students, she said.

For the 2014-15 school years, Wake’s counselor-student ratio was 1-to-396 in high schools and 1-to-391 in middle schools. Ratios for the current school year were unavailable, spokeswoman Lisa Luten said.

The district requires all school-based staff, including janitors, to undergo training by mental health professionals to recognize and report signs of suicide and depression in students, Luten said.

Central office administrators declined to comment further for this story, citing concerns over copycat suicides.

Fighting stigma

Depression and suicide are complex issues that many hesitate to talk about. After student deaths this spring, Morrisville resident Satish Garimella organized a suicide awareness meeting in his Breckenridge neighborhood, where one of the students lived. He wanted to address concerns and provide neighbors with information on recognizing depression among teens.

“It sent shock waves through the community,” said Garimella, president of the neighborhood’s homeowners association.

More than two dozen people attended the meeting to hear from police officers and mental health professionals. “Everyone knew about (the suicides), but no one wanted to talk about it,” he said.

Many who attempt to hurt themselves often suffer from a mental illness, experts say. And those struggling with depression or another mental illness are more likely to attempt suicide if they experience traumatic events such as harassment, a breakup, an arrest or the death of a loved one. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender high school students are also more likely to attempt suicide, according to a report by the state Department of Health and Human Services.

The statistics in North Carolina are grim.

Teens and young adults in North Carolina are hospitalized for self-injury more often than every other age group, according to the DHHS. Suicide is the third-leading cause of death for ages 15 to 24 and the second-leading cause of death among those 10 to 14 in North Carolina, according to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But surveys show that most parents have no idea whether their child has attempted suicide or is struggling with depression, said Scott Poland, a professor at Nova Southeastern University in Florida and one of the country’s leading teen mental health experts.

About 20 percent of teens suffer from depression at some point during adolescence, he said, but 80 percent of them don’t receive help. A national CDC survey found that 8 percent of high school students have made a suicide attempt in the past 12 months.

Wake County’s stats are no different, according to Kelly Lister, the Wake County school system’s crisis intervention specialist. Two of every 25 students have attempted suicide at some point, she told Green Hope parents during a meeting at the school.

Some who suffer from depression may not realize it, and parents often aren’t aware of the signs. “The problem is, most people cannot separate teen depression from typical teen moodiness,” Poland said.

The difference often comes down to the length of the emotion and how it affects daily life. Those who are depressed feel down almost constantly.

If a student is suffering, he might hesitate to tell someone, because he doesn’t want to seem weak or dramatic.

But telling someone is the best thing anyone who might be suffering from depression can do as a first step, experts said. And students who know – or think they might know – someone suffering with depression should tell a parent, teacher or administrator.

Feeling pressure

At Green Hope’s meeting with parents this spring, Principal Karen Summers told parents to get involved in their children’s lives and stay involved – without putting undue pressure on them.

“The No. 1 thing we’re seeing at school is that kids are stressed out,” she said. “Sometimes y’all stress them out.”

Students who earn a “B” on a test shouldn’t be criticized by their parents for not earning an “A,” she said. Summers also encouraged parents to get access to their child’s phone and social media accounts to monitor for cyberbullying. She and Lister, the school system’s crisis intervention specialist, also urged parents to get firearms out of their homes if they have a teen suffering from depression or another mental illness.

For students, Green Hope sought to teach them how to recognize and deal with depression, part of a program called “Signs of Suicide.” Students saw a video and were asked to fill out a survey, asking:

▪ Have you ever seriously thought about killing yourself?

▪ Have you ever made a plan about how you would kill yourself?

▪ Have you ever tried to kill yourself?

Immediately after each presentation, counselors reviewed the surveys. If a student answered “yes” to any of the questions, an administrator called the student’s parents that day.

Poland, the teen mental health expert, praised Green Hope’s response.

“Every school should be doing it every year because it’s best practice,” he said.

The Allens said they never found evidence that Zane was bullied or depressed. He was troubled by an array of seemingly minor things, Travis Allen said. But they think he was most overwhelmed by the inordinate amount of pressure he put on himself to excel academically.

“He constantly was talking to me about how concerned he was about college,” he said.

The Allens, who work as ballroom dance instructors, say they never pressured Zane to get perfect grades or to get into a prestigious school. Nor do they think he was influenced by students or faculty at Green Hope, one of the highest-performing high schools in the state.

They don’t blame anyone.

“Green Hope is a fabulous school, and that’s why we drove so far to get there,” Travis Allen said, noting the 25-minute commute from their Raleigh home.

Zane was self-motivated, the Allens said. They rarely had to ask him to study. And they were so confident that Zane was bound for great things that they sometimes dismissed his concerns about the future as typical teen angst.

Wake and N.C. response

In Wake, seventh-graders and high school freshmen are taught about signs of suicide in their health classes. This year, the school system started showing the program to all seniors, as well. The central office also sends in extra counselors to schools if a need arises.

As a state, experts say North Carolina has room to improve when it comes to raising awareness about teen mental health and providing resources in schools, though state leaders have made some progress.

Last year, the legislature passed a law prohibiting schools from using counselors as testing coordinators for state exams – a practice at many schools that counselors see as a waste of their time.

This year, the Department of Health and Human Services adopted a plan to prevent suicide across the state. The comprehensive plan was developed to complement a similar national report.

Citing a lack of resources at the state level, the plan aims to help groups address suicide in all ages and demographics. The report contains strategies and priorities to help identify those at high risk of suicide, including youth, military veterans, Native Americans and college students.

For example, it calls on police forces to require all officers to complete crisis intervention training, and for all medical facility and school staff members to undergo mandatory suicide prevention training.

Guilt and hope

Travis and Diane Allen want to raise awareness of teen depression and suicide. Above all, they don’t want anyone else to go through their experience.

“I feel like I’ve seen the bottom,” Diane Allen said.

The Allens were involved in their son’s life. They drove him to school, attended his band and athletic events, and talked to him about his social life.

Still, they say it wasn’t enough. They’re encouraging parents to pay closer attention to their child’s mental health.

“I feel guilt,” Travis Allen said. “I feel shame. I feel unending and unbelievable grief. I feel as if I have failed, because the No. 1 thing I was supposed to do for my child was keep him safe.”

A year has gone by, and the Allens say it’s hard for them to think about anything else.

Zane’s father misses camping with him. His mother misses their talks on the way to school, and she writes journals to him. Zane often appears in their dreams.

Travis Allen becomes emotional talking about a dream he had shortly after Zane died. In the dream, Zane came home from what he described as a trip.

“I saw him, and he looked so handsome,” Travis Allen said. “I just hugged him, and I kissed him, and I said, ‘Oh, I love you so.’ 

They wonder what could have been.

About a month after Zane’s death, the Allens got an envelope from New York. Inside was a personalized letter from West Point.

The admissions director wanted Zane to apply.

Paul A. Specht: 919-829-4870, @AndySpecht

If you need to talk

▪ HopeLine or Teen TalkLine : 919-231-4525 or 877-235-4525

▪ National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

▪ Wake County Crisis and Assessment: 919-250-1260

‘Cling to your child’

Travis Allen wrote this letter after Zane’s death and gave it to Green Hope Principal Karen Summers to read at the meeting for parents. He gave The N&O permission to reprint it.

I lost my son recently to suicide. I loved him tremendously and still cry over the loss of him. I have heard many people say that time will make it better. Time does not make it better. The longer he is gone, the more I miss him.

As time passes, you learn that the pain is just part of who you have become. I hope that the telling of my experience will help others.

There are three things had I done differently I may not be writing this letter.

First, if your child talks about suicide even in a joking manner, take it very seriously. My son and I had talked about how others had thought of suicide only a few weeks before he took his life. We joked with each other that you wouldn’t want to make a mistake if you attempted it.

What I now know is this was not a laughing matter, it was a sign – a big stop sign I should have recognized.

My son said he was stressed. From my perspective, he had no stress. All the things he could possibly need or want were provided for him. He had the nicest computer, best cellphone, his own room and ate steak on a weekly basis. His mother and I attended all of his events to show our support and love for him.

However, he was not stressed about what he had now but about what he was to become. His concern was for the future. I should have talked to him more about his stress and not discounted it. In my mind, he had no stress, and in his mind he had the weight of his whole future bearing down on him.

When people seek but find no answers about their future, despair sets in, and this is when they make fatal mistakes. He couldn’t find an answer. That is one of the reasons he took his life. Help your children find their answers, no matter how trivial the problems may seem to you.

The last thing that my son and I shared was a hug, and I told him he was a good fella. I knew he was having some personal problems, and this is why I gave him the hug.

I used the word “fella” because I knew he wasn’t a boy, but not yet a man. So I didn’t want to say, “good boy,” but felt that I wouldn’t be honest if I called him a “good man.” So I called him a “good fella,” then left him alone, because he had previously told me he didn’t want me to coddle him.

I tell you now when your children are having problems, cling to your child. They may hate you for your love, but at least they will be there to hate you.

If this telling has helped even one person, it is of great value to me.

Warning signs

People who kill themselves exhibit one or more warning signs, either through what they say or what they do. The more warning signs, the greater the risk. Among the signs:

Talk: If people talk about killing themselves, having no reason to live, feeling hopeless, being a burden to others, feeling trapped, unbearable pain.

Behavior: A person’s suicide risk is greater if a behavior is new or has increased, especially if it’s related to a painful event, loss or change. This includes increased use of alcohol or drugs; looking for a way to kill themselves, such as searching online for materials or means; acting recklessly; withdrawing from activities; isolating from family and friends; sleeping too much or too little; visiting or calling people to say goodbye; giving away prized possessions; and aggression.

Mood: People who are considering suicide often display one or more of the following moods: depression, loss of interest, rage, irritability, humiliation and anxiety. They may also display extreme mood swings.

What to do

If someone you know exhibits warning signs of suicide, here are steps you should take:

▪ Do not leave the person alone.

▪ Inform the person’s parent or other close relative. If at school, tell a teacher.

▪ Remove any firearms, alcohol, drugs or sharp objects.

▪ Take the person to an emergency room or seek help from a medical or mental health professional.

▪ Call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 (TALK)

Source: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

About this story

Suicide is a sensitive subject, and experts say media coverage, if done improperly, can increase the risk of suicide attempts. Reporter Paul A. Specht spent six months reporting this story. He and his editors consulted with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and Kelly McBride, an ethicist at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, about best practices for writing on the subject.

Hear from survivors

Last month, The N&O reported on a suicide prevention effort at N.C. State University and an eight-minute video, #StopTheStigma, featuring students who had attempted suicide, talking about how they got help from friends, family and therapists and what they had learned from their experiences.

In the video, which can be seen at nando.com/stopthestigma, Baysha Bernales says: “The things that you hate about yourself now will someday be things that you overcome and that make you a stronger person.”

Learn more at the N.C. State University Counseling Center website, counseling.dasa.ncsu.edu. The center can be reached at 919-515-2423.