Spate of suicides sparks search for answers
On the bed in Jared Bannar's room is a patchwork quilt, meticulously stitched squares created from his collection of T-shirts. On the dresser are a watch, a silver bracelet, and a photograph of Jared and his girlfriend - face down, just as he placed it. Every few days, Jared's father, Michael, enters the room and winds his son's watch. "I don't know why I do it," he says. Jared has been dead for four years.
On the bed in Jared Bannar's room is a patchwork quilt, meticulously stitched squares created from his collection of T-shirts. A square in the center with the bold, purple number 21 screams out from the others. It was Jared's number on the baseball team of his high school, Cherry Hill West.
On the dresser are a watch, a silver bracelet, and a photograph of Jared and his girlfriend - face down, just as he placed it. His shirts and jeans, neatly arranged on evenly spaced hangers, line his closet. Every few days, Jared's father, Michael, enters the room and winds his son's watch. "I don't know why I do it," he says.
Jared has been dead for four years. He hanged himself in Brandy Woods Park, a recreational area near his home. He is buried in the cemetery just down the street. His parents and 18-year-old sister pass it several times a day.
Suicide is the third-leading cause of death for young people between 15 and 24 - more males than females - and accounts for almost 4,500 lives lost every year in this country. Scientists believe that more teenagers and young adults die of suicide in a year than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease combined. And this is just the edge of the tragedy. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, nearly half a million teenagers make a suicide attempt every year. More girls try; more boys succeed.
What they leave behind are families for whom life will never be the same, who struggle to make sense of a world where suddenly a sister becomes an only child, where parents mourn the graduations that will never occur, the grandchildren they will never have.
A recent spate of public suicides among young people has left parents and school officials scrambling for answers. Why did Cameron Dabaghi, 21, a brilliant Yale undergraduate, plunge to his death from the 86th-floor observation deck of the Empire State Building? Why did Vanessa Dorwart and her friend Gina Gentile enter into a bizarre suicide pact that ended their lives on a railroad track in Delaware County, struck by a high-speed, D.C.-bound Acela train? Why did six students hurl themselves into the majestic gorges that define the campus of Cornell University? And what persuaded Owen Thomas, a 21-year-old Penn football cocaptain and son of two preachers, to hang himself in his off-campus apartment?
Why didn't they seek help? And how do those left behind survive after so overwhelming a catastrophe? How do they achieve the balance between the need to grieve and the memorialization of an act that others could copy?
Jared's mother, Kathy, says she and her husband, Michael, will never forget the night they got the news. It was after midnight when they were startled by an insistent knock on the front door. On the way downstairs, after stumbling from their bed, they passed Jared's room and saw that it was empty. Two police officers and a fire department official told them there had been an accident. "Is Jared dead?" his mother whispered. When the officer nodded, she fell to the floor.
Like many parents of children who have taken their own lives, Jared's parents say they were blindsided. Jared was handsome and popular and had, just the day before, gone with his mother to buy a tuxedo for his junior prom. He was looking forward to a spring-break trip to Myrtle Beach with his high school baseball team. His parents were to have gone, too. "We had no clues," says his mother, running a finger absently through her long, rust-colored hair. "Still, if I knew then what I know now-"
Several months earlier, Jared had been in what his mother calls a "fender-bender." Three other boys were in the car, and because Jared held only a junior license, the limit on passengers was one. The officer gave him a ticket. Jared brooded about the incident, and a week later told his father, "I need to talk to someone. I tried to burn my arm with a cigarette."
For eight weeks, Jared visited a therapist; in December, the family received what it believed was an early Christmas gift. The therapist called Jared's mother to say she was discharging him, that he was "fine now."
The following March, Jared was cut from the varsity baseball team and was distraught enough that he wanted to quit the junior varsity. But he followed his father's advice to "go out there and do your best." A short time later, he and his girlfriend broke up. But he didn't look despondent. In fact, he spent more time with friends and seemed cheerful.
Psychologist Norman Weissberg, director of training at Contact Greater Philadelphia, which offers a free crisis line for those who feel suicidal, says parents are often the last to know when their children have suicidal thoughts. "It is the nature of adolescents to keep secrets, especially from their parents," he said.
Psychological autopsies - post-suicide studies of family members and peers - reveal that young people are more likely to confide in their friends. Their confidants tend to believe that sharing that information would be a betrayal. They need to learn, says David Shaffer, professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at Columbia University, that telling an adult would be a compassionate act that could save a life.
Jared's girlfriend said after his death that he had talked off and on for a year about wanting to kill himself.
The evening of the suicide, Jared had dinner with his family, including an aunt and uncle. He seemed happy then and said he planned to stop at church before spending the evening with friends. On the way out, he paused and asked his mother, "Why do we have to go to church?" She responded, "You never know when you are going to need God."
That night, police stopped him again, and he ended up with another ticket. "Jared was a sensitive boy," his mother says, "and I think he hated to disappoint us. I can imagine that he thought, 'I did it again. How can I face my parents?' "
Kathy and Michael Bannar continue to be tormented by the what-ifs. What if failing to make the varsity baseball team had not put him in a slump? What if we had taken it more seriously when he and his girlfriend broke up? What if we hadn't always urged him to keep his grades up?
"There is some kind of trigger - a romantic disruption, an arrest, an argument with parents, a failed test in school, relentless bullying - that might precipitate a suicide," says Benjamin Shain, head of the division of child and adolescent psychiatry at the Northshore University Health System in Evanston, Ill.
"Teenagers today tend to grow up in a world that breeds isolation," adds Laurie Flynn, executive director of Columbia University's TeenScreen Program, which works with schools and communities nationwide to identify adolescents with depression and suicidal thoughts. "People move more, change jobs more, and relationships don't last as long and are not as loving, strong, and comforting as they once were."
Shain blames the advent of the suburbs for the 300 percent increase in suicides between 1950 and 1990. Cities and rural areas had a support system. "But the suburbs, with their white picket fences and only your immediate family at close hand, brought a sense of isolation, a forerunner of suicide."
But in 90 percent of the cases, experts agree, there is an underlying mental-health disorder - depression or bipolar illness, which includes among its symptoms agitation, anger, distress, mood swings, and impulsivity. Some psychological experts blame the black-box warning labels put on antidepressants in 2004 that led to a drop in their use. There is evidence, too, of a genetic component, that suicide may run in families. Drug or alcohol abuse figure in many cases.
"The brains of adolescents are still developing," says Shain, "and there is an increased tendency to see things in black and white. Something bad now will never go away so they may as well be dead." While these feelings are true for people of any age who take their life, adolescents are more prone to them than younger children or adults. "Adolescents are extremely intense and give high emotional value to whatever happens to them," Shain says.
Still, suicide and suicidal behavior are not normal responses to stress, even among intense adolescents. "The teenage brain is not just an adult brain with fewer miles on it," says Frances Jensen, a pediatric neurologist at Children's Hospital Boston. "The frontal lobes [in a teenager's brain] are not fully connected . . . and insight requires fully connected frontal lobes."
Parents are advised to look for changes in behavior or attitude: a pleasant child who becomes surly, a teenager who begins hallucinating or injuring himself or herself by cutting or burning. Aggressive behavior can be a warning. So can verbal hints, such as "I won't be a problem for you much longer." Giving away favorite possessions may be a clue. And look out for the child who becomes suddenly cheerful after a period of depression. He may be more at peace because he has figured a way out.
Suicidal thoughts are not incessant; they come and go, says Shaffer, the Columbia University psychiatrist, who developed the psychological autopsy and is considered a leading expert in the field. He cites a study on suicides committed by jumping from a bridge. The spot where the jump occurs is significant, he says. It is rarely from the middle, but from the sides, a sign that the person is not sure about wanting to do it.
Another study looked at eight unsuccessful suicides by those who jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. The subjects were asked what they were thinking during the three-second drop. All responded that on the way down they felt relief and peace but after surviving experienced a new sense of hope and purpose. Appealing to that ambivalence is an important strategy in suicide's prevention, Shain says.
Even vigilant parents may be powerless against the relentless influence of peer communication through the Internet, Facebook, and especially text messaging. "The Internet is a wonderful thing, but potentially dangerous," says Weissberg, the psychologist. "There are sites that tell in excruciating detail how to carry out a suicide."
Some experts, such as Roxanne Kennedy, a licensed clinical social worker in Langhorne who works with families of those who have taken their lives, say that a violent suicide, such as that of the Yale student, is an act of anger. "Something that dramatic is a public statement, a sign that you want the world to know. 'Life is so hard, this is what it made me do.' "
Others say it is simply a resolve that the death be sure and quick with no chance of rescue or turning back.
No matter how it is done, the devastation it wreaks on the survivors is stunning. "Our primary job as parents is to guide our children through to independence and adulthood," says Laurie Flynn. "When we don't get to do that, there is an unbearable sense of grief and guilt. It is a loss like no other.. . . It is a tribute to the courage and strength of parents that so many work out their loss by helping other families."
"It's a slow, slow process," Jared's mother says. "For the first year, I was completely numb.
"It was the support of friends and becoming involved in projects to preserve Jared's memory that kept us sane."
Two good friends started a trust fund that raised all of the money for funeral expenses. Jared's parents asked that in lieu of flowers, contributions be made to construct two dugouts on the school's junior varsity field. Today a pair of plaques in the shape of baseball diamonds engraved with "April, 2006" - the last month of Jared's life - are mounted in the dugouts. On June 6, for the third year, the couple orchestrated a walk in Cherry Hill with proceeds going to Contact Community Help Lines for operation of a 24-hour telephone service for anyone who feels troubled.
"I couldn't save Jared," says his mother," her voice cracking. "That pain will be with me forever. But maybe I can save somebody else."
Contact Gloria Hochman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Finding Help, Helping Others Get Assistance
Feeling BlueSuicide Prevention Council
Contact Greater Philadelphia
Survivors of Suicide
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention