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Back-to-back senior class suicides rock Ripon High

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POSTED December 13, 2009 2:39 a.m.
RIPON — Some 40 counselors met with many grief stricken high school students in Ripon on Thursday after back-to-back suicides in the senior class.  

David Love, executive director of Valley Community Counseling Services, led an emotion packed informational session with about 30 parents in the school library at 6:30 p.m. Thursday aided by other counselors and school staff members.  It continued for some two hours with questions coming from parents as well.

The first high school senior and member of the football team died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound near the start of school year. The second – a very involved and accomplished senior girl – died just last week.

School Superintendent Louis Nan told parents and staff at the meeting, “If we do nothing else this year, we need to protect our young people and shepherd them through this.”

She voiced her “profound sense of gratitude” for the Ripon community coming together in support of the school and its students in its tremendous outpouring of support.

Love explained to parents that the first death had a definite impact on the student body, but the second loss of life created a completely different set of dynamics.  Students didn’t want to talk and many couldn’t sleep at night.  Teens initially took part in counseling sessions in the library, but the second time around they hesitated to participate.

The counselor urged parents to give their teens space, and they will talk about their emotions when they are ready, he said.  “Don’t say: ‘I know how you feel.’ You don’t have a clue how they feel – you’re not inside their skin.”

“On the first day after the latest tragedy, counselors went into every first period advisory class at the beginning of the day,” Love said.  Students were told, “This is tragic and terrible.  We know you are hurting – your feelings are legitimate.”

They stressed that none of them was to blame for what happened.

He added that much of the student body just shut down their emotions, this time, not wanting to go to the library and talk with grief counselors as they had with the first death.  It’s not being a bad friend to talk about what you hear – to report it to someone in authority – when you are told about a suicide plan, Love told students.

Those who commit suicide almost always talk about doing it
Ripon High School principal Lance Morrow noted in a letter sent to all parents that people who are considering suicide will talk openly about it before they finally decide to kill themselves.  “It is important to listen to what your teen is really saying,” he said.

Morrow urged parents to use the high school’s website to ask any further questions they might have and to call staff members on the phone when they have a need.  “Call us, we want to be here to help and to help the kids,” he said.

He added that it is important to restate what your teen is saying to you so that they know you have heard them – especially when they share their feelings.

Those who think about suicide will often give clues and warnings about what they plan to do, he said, including giving away their personal possessions.  Young people who feel they have no one to talk to are at a higher risk, he said.  

Ripon High Vice Principal Amie Packer said that staff members don’t want to do anything that would glorify this and create a cluster suicide event.  A crisis response team has met with students at least 30 times to make sure the students’ needs are met, she said.  There is a plan in place to offer student support for the rest of the school year.

Counselor Love told parents of sobering statistics that claim nearly 15 per cent of students across the country of high school age have considered committing suicide during the last year alone. Seven per cent of students during the same time prior reported making at least one suicide attempt.

And, among the 15 to 24 year old age group, suicide accounts for 12 per cent of all deaths annually.

Students having trouble studying for exams
Students have recently been telling parents they are having trouble focusing on studying for upcoming exams.  Love responded to that saying they can take those same exams over again in January when the immediacy and the shock of the event has declined to some degree.

Ripon High counselor Dawn Godeau said the school staff has learned that counseling students in a big group setting doesn’t work for Ripon students – doing better with one on one attention.  There have been six to seven counselors on campus every day since the last suicide occurred, she added.  “We have been seeing some kids several times,” she said.

The school is trying to focus on the happy things in life, but it continues to be something of a negative focus right now, she said.  “Some might think we are over and above, but I’m OK with that right now,” she added.  About 90 per cent of the student body is ready to move on with their lives but it is the remaining 10 per cent that is creating the concern.
The counseling efforts are also aimed at elementary school students who have been affected by the last suicide, noting that the senior girl was working with sixth grade students who are planning to attend the annual science camp.

Love said that communicating with the student body about crisis events is a must noting the value of communicating on their own networks.  “We have to use their style of communicating,” he said.  More than half of the students were aware of the girl’s death by 11 p.m. that night, getting the news over the internet, not from the school.

Love quoted Dr. Edwin Shneidman’s consensus of suicide and its causes.

First, he noted the common purpose of suicide is to seek a solution for how a person feels and how the world looks to them in the present.  It’s a cessation of consciousness when a person is hurting and in pain — they just want it all to go away.

We need to be loved; we need to belong.  When you get to a point you can’t fill or feel those needs, you feel isolated, he said.  

“The common action in suicide is escape. When you commit suicide you are escaping – they want it (the pain) to stop,” Love stressed.

Decision making process different for those younger than 23 to 25
He further told parents that development of the prefrontal cortex in the brain doesn’t develop until a person is 23 to 25 years old.  It is that part of the brain that allows a person the vision to see the future consequences of their actions, not especially part of a teen’s biological makeup.

“That’s why we need parents and a support system,” he said.

“You’ve got to allow people to talk when they are feeling stressed or depressed,” he added.  “If a young person talks about considering suicide, encourage them to talk to someone who can help them, and don’t promise to keep a secret – you can get over mad, but you can’t get over suicide.”

The counselor mentioned symptoms common with suicidal teens with increasing drug intake being one sign; another is where grades are dropping off suddenly. Also giving personal property away to friends.

When all of a sudden they start driving crazy or have a sudden change in character, that should raise red flags as well, he added.

As for Marissa and Dillion they want these kids to be real, Love told the parents.  “Just be patient, your kids are down now, but out of the blue they will start talking.  It will happen, and you’ve got to be ready when it does,” he said.

The national suicide prevention lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK.  The website is www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.  The family crisis hot line for San Joaquin County is 1-877-643-4750 a part of the Family & Youth Services of San Joaquin County where free and confidential services are available.  The youth crisis phone number is 209-948-1911.
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