Bringing Suicide Awareness to the Community

Photo by Mary O’KEEFE
The panel on Tuesday night included (from left) Lea Howell, Karen Carlson, Franklin Romero, Lin Min Kong and Cheryl Eskin.


About 75 parents and students attended a frank discussion about suicide on Tuesday night at the Crescenta Valley High School MacDonald Auditorium.

Sponsored by the school’s PTSA, the goal of the panel discussion was to help end the stigma of mental illness and demonstrate that there is no shame in asking for help.

“We as a community are here to help,” said Monna Johnson, PTA Council president.

CVHS principal Linda Junge welcomed everyone and praised the PTSA with working with a culture of kindness. The PTSA’s theme this year is “Healthy Minds, Healthy Students.”

“I know this is a sensitive subject, but it is not taboo,” Junge said.

Glendale Unified School District showed strong support with many from the District attending the event including Superintendent Vivian Ekchian and school board President Jennifer Freemon.

“This is one of the pieces we continue to work on, culture and climate,” Freemon said.

She added the District is continuing to identify community resources and continues in its effort to do a better job identifying and providing mental health support for students.

The panel included Lea Howell, CVHS school psychologist, Karen Carlson, CVHS counselor, Franklin Romero, Los Angeles County Dept. of Mental Health, Lin Min Kong, Hathaway-Sycamores Services, and Cheryl Eskin, program director Teen Line Cedars-Sinai.

“This is a difficult but a very important topic,” Howell said.

She shared a personal story of loss when a friend died by suicide.

According to a study by the America’s Health Rankings 2019, since 2016 California saw a 34% increase in suicide in ages between 15 and 19. The national rate for the same ages was 25%. The study also found during that same time period there were “far more adolescents who have had suicidal thoughts, or attempted suicide and survived, than those who die by suicide.”

Howell described suicide as a “perfect storm” of issues; normally there is not a single  factor that causes suicide but a number of factors, even warning signs, that lead to a decision to self-harm.

Howell said there are ways to help students who are thinking or have thought of self-harm. One of the ways would be for social support participation, meaning having students involved in extracurricular activities and joining clubs thereby getting a sense of belonging.

“The willingness to obtain treatment is an important part of our [school] community,” she said. “Some suicides can be prevented while others cannot, but we want to remain hopeful.”

She listed some warning signs that parents and students who are concerned about friends can look for including the more obvious suicidal notes and texts expressing feelings like “I want to die.”

“Death and suicidal themes in writing,” she added. “Some suicide signs are more subtle, like loss of energy, being withdrawn or [feeling isolated].”

Students might also speak about being a burden or give away their possessions.

“One student I worked with had quit his job and was giving items away,” Howell said.

That alerted her to the need to help the student.

She also spoke of risk factors and, although there is not one set predictor of suicide, Howell said, “we must respond to all levels of risk.”

Those risks include alcohol and substance abuse and previous suicidal behaviors including a student coping with depression or being diagnosed with mental illness.

Carlson spoke of other at-risk signs like self-mutilation, including cutting oneself. She suggested that if and when parents, or friends, come upon these types of signs not to stay “emotionally non-reactive,” but to instead talk to the teen in a calm manner about what is bothering them.

She added that if a student, parent or anyone thinks there is a risk to a student to contact the school Counseling Office.

“We do investigate every possible threat,” Carlson added.

Romero said LA County Supervisor Kathryn Barger, recently named chair of the LA Country Board of Supervisors, has made youth mental health a priority.

“The Dept. of Mental Health is here to support communities,” he said.

He spoke of the County’s hotline and the support for not only those contemplating suicide but all in crisis including loved ones who are concerned about a friend or family member. LA County will train parents, clergy and community members to help those in crisis.

When a person needs mental health help and goes to an LA County facility, many times there is a long wait before a person is seen by a professional.

“We have [several] urgent care centers where we can have [people] immediately assessed,” Romero said.

The closest urgent care in Crescenta Valley is at USC Verdugo Hills Hospital.

Min Kong also promoted the use of hotlines. She spoke of experts who can help those in need but also said that getting a therapist is very valuable.

“Don’t give up,” she advised. “You might have to see a second or even third [therapist].”

She said that it was important to find that one person to connect with and that can take time.

“What we do [at Hathaway-Sycamores] is partner with schools and families,” she said. “We know there is still a stigma [for getting help].”

After the recent suicide of a CVHS student, a teacher went to social media and asked students to speak out anonymously about their concerns and their feelings.

Min Kong read some of those responses, which included comments about feeling loved even if they get a bad grade or when their parents fight.

“I need to know that I am worthy of unconditional love,” Min Kong read.

Her advice for parents was to “be persistent, be patient and be kind.”

“It’s really, really difficult to be a teen,” said Eskin. “There is a lot going on in their brains, which are not yet fully developed, so teens feel things really big.”

She gave the audience some coping skills including not getting sucked into the perfect worldview of social media, that everyone’s life is better than theirs. Although adults may be able to distinguish the reality that the “perfect life” is usually an illusion, it is different for teens.

“When they see it online, it is their reality,” she said.

She also told parents to remember to love their child … the child standing in front of them, not the child they expect, not the same way as their sibling, but the child that is standing in front of them.