A Double Suicide Adds to the National Tragedy of Teenagers Who Take Their Own Lives

updated 06/27/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/27/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

On June 5 high school senior William Shott, 17, of North Salem, N.Y. went into his bathroom and hanged himself, in precise imitation of his girlfriend, Cathy Ann Petruso, 17, who had hanged herself following an argument with him only three weeks before. Petruso, the daughter of a policeman, was the older of two children, a former homecoming queen, cheerleader and popular B student who had been accepted at college. Shott, the youngest of three born to a construction company owner, was less extraverted than Petruso in the rural community where they lived. Shott had saved some 400 letters from Petruso written during their courtship and seemed consumed by grief after her death. The two would have graduated June 24. In an unrelated, but equally horrifying, sequence of events in Piano, Texas, a Dallas suburb, 16-year-old Bruce Carrio took his life by carbon monoxide poisoning less than one week after his best friend died in a drag-racing accident. Within two months two more Piano students who were not Carrio's friends killed themselves; five others tried to commit suicide and failed.

These wrenching episodes illuminate a grim statistic: More than 2,000 U.S. teenagers are expected to kill themselves deliberately this year, leaving behind shattered parents, grief-stricken friends and baffled, deeply troubled communities.

The highest rate of suicides occurs in the nation's prosperous, achievement-oriented suburbs. Neurologist-turned-psychiatrist Dr. Mary Giffin, 64, has dedicated her 40-year career to treating troubled youngsters and currently heads the Irene Josselyn Clinic in Northfield, III., outside Chicago. The clinic serves a cluster of wealthy towns sharing the highest teenage suicide rate in Illinois. "Childhood is supposedly a carefree, innocent time," Giffin has written in her recently published book A Cry for Help, co-authored with journalist Carol Felsenthal (Doubleday, $16.95). "We now know that depression is sickeningly prevalent among children and that if not treated, it can be fatal." She shared her insights on this disturbing subject with PEOPLE correspondent Giovanna Breu.

Is teenage suicide an epidemic?

The suicide rate among 15-to-19-year-olds has increased 200 percent in the past two decades. In some ways epidemic is an accurate word because if one person in a group—a class, club or athletic team—kills himself, there is a tendency for all troubled people in the group to consider it.

Are you saying there is a ripple effect?

There is a lot of talk that suicide is catching, and you can find many, many examples. In 1977 a suburban Chicago high school student killed himself and within months four others followed.

Could you speculate on the North Salem deaths?

There is a suggestion that the relationship had a Romeo-and-Juliet quality and was based more in fantasy than reality. The act of suicide would seem romantic. However, the teenagers were probably already disturbed. In the boy's case there must have been guilt, confusion and deep depression over the loss of his girlfriend.

Why is the teen suicide rate rising?

Children are becoming ever more dependent on their parents. As neighborhoods disintegrate, as churches lose their hold, as families scatter over the country, the only adults besides teachers with whom kids have contact are their parents—or, with the high divorce rate, their parent. Life for the average teenager is becoming more impersonal, aimless and lonely. Many parents, preoccupied with their own lives, seem to push their children to grow up, to become mini-adults. Children need nurturing and love and they'll kill—themselves—to get it.

What does death mean to a child?

Often the child seems to believe that after death he or she will remain behind, gloating over the parent's grief. Perhaps because their lives have just begun, they cannot really conceive of finality. Most children do not know as much about death as they did 100 years ago because the extended family is small and grandparents often don't live nearby. Kids don't see people dying.

Do teens have the highest suicide rate?

No, the highest rate in the population is among those who are 80 or over. Next is the 15-to-19-year-old group. The 18-year-old leaving for the first semester of college has the highest incidence among teenagers. There is a lot more separation anxiety than many teens anticipate, and it strikes them when they leave home.

Where and when do teenagers attempt suicide?

Nine out of 10 teenage suicide attempts take place in the home. Seventy percent of teens who try suicide do so when their parents are likely to find them. And they do it between the hours of 3 p.m. and midnight, which indicates their wish to be found and saved. If they really wanted to die, they would not take the chance of being discovered.

What are the most common methods tried for suicide among teenagers?

By shotguns, hanging and railroad trains. I heard about a girl who lay down on the railway tracks, had second thoughts, tried to crawl away and had her feet amputated. That was a mixed cry for help.

When teens attempt suicide, what do they really hope to accomplish?

They are killing the hopelessness. They really don't mean to be killing themselves. The act of suicide says, "The only way I can see to be helped is to kill myself. Please find another answer for me."

What are the warning signs?

General distress signals may include unusually aggressive, hostile or passive behavior. There may be changes in eating and sleeping habits, sudden mood or personality changes—impulsiveness, inability to concentrate, slackening interest in schoolwork. Loss or lack of friends may be an indicator. Also, talking of suicide may signal a child's sense of hopelessness. There is a myth that those who talk about suicide will never do it.

Is there any other critical sign?

One we call making a will, though it doesn't consist of writing a document. It has to do with giving away one's beloved possessions. One social worker told me she was worried about a boy because he had included his favorite watch in a note to his girlfriend. We alert social workers to watch out for signs like this. We did not have to involve the boy in an elaborate treatment program. There was a drama coach interested in the boy, and his mother spent more time with him and took more interest in his school activities.

When should a parent be concerned?

It is hard to know when trouble is really serious because all adolescents have problems. It is a matter of degree and of children feeling stuck in a pattern of hopelessness. If teenagers are in a blue funk some Saturday mornings and sleep until noon and ignore their parents, that is normal. If they are in a blue funk and get up at noon, go back to bed and don't call their friends and don't come to supper, then you have to ask, "What gives?"

Typically, what kind of parents do suicidal teenagers have?

Some have parents who totally neglect their children, who are abusive or even abandon them. Some have parents who are overprotective. Others have middle-class parents who seem loving and concerned, but who are determined to mold their children into status symbols: academic, athletic or social successes. These children are from homes in which love is a prize that must be won.

How does this affect the child?

It puts unrealistic expectations on him. He never has a chance to be himself. Before he reaches 7, his parents have already had seven years of fantasy expectations of what he will become, and those rarely fit. The child never develops his real self; he becomes a mixture of who he is and who his family wants him to be. If only parents could wait to see what a child's potential is, and then say, "Well, given this potential, this is what I would like to see you do."

If you believe your child is considering suicide, what should you do?

Parents should talk to their child. It is not true that if you talk about suicide, you may be adding to the problem.

In a crisis, what can parents do?

Plenty. They must discard their old pattern of relating to a child by avoiding confrontation. The suicidal child who typically feels out of control and uncared-for needs someone to take control immediately. By doing so, parents show they care. But talk with your child, not at him. Remember, 75 percent of those who commit suicide give repeated warnings.

How can a family survive a suicide?

Natural death carries its share of torment, but suicide creates grief that is magnified by crushing guilt. Counseling should be a family affair—not necessarily as a group or with the same clinician, but it is a must. Any stress can serve as an opportunity for growth with proper introspection and professional help as needed.

How can we curb the incidence of teen suicide?

We need better communication between parent and child. In a startlingly high proportion of suicides there has been a problem in the parent/child relationship from the beginning—literally. The mother and child never developed a sense of attachment and trust. The manner in which a mother communicates with her baby—the nurturing, breast-feeding, holding—sets the tone of interaction that will go on for the rest of their lives.

How important is the mother's presence in a child's early life?

Mothers should stay with their children until they are 6. Some mothers have no financial alternative to working, of course. They should try to get good day care. It is also important for the father to be close to his child.

How should parents deal with a teen whose behavior has them worried?

One problem is the parental reaction to normal adolescent behavior. Most adolescents become abominable, so parents retreat to protect themselves. Even the most tractable teenager sets up a distance between himself and his parents. What happens, however, is that parents understandably withdraw too. Yet the teenager needs parents who remain actively involved as he pulls away. Parents must realize that they have to keep taking the initiative and communicating with their kids.

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