By Susan Abram, Daily News Staff Writer | http://bit.ly/uY4JHT
"DAN" is spelled out on a hillside above Agoura High School, as seen on Nov. 3, 2011, in remembrance of senior Dan Behar, who took his own life Oct. 31. (Andy Holzman/Daily News Staff Photographer)
11/07/2011 01:00:00 AM PST - AGOURA HILLS -- A mother's chilling wail pierced the night, until even the most expressionless among the teenagers began to sob.
Her cries came during an impromptu candlelight vigil last week for a 17-year-old Agoura High School student, Dan Behar, who sent his classmates a text message that said goodbye and where to find his body. Then he drove his car down an embankment in Malibu State Park.
"Turn to your left and turn to your right and talk to somebody," a teenage girl implored the crowd of young, illuminated faces during the candlelight vigil for Behar, and for two other young men with ties to the school who had died recently.
"We don't want this to happen again."
Behar was among several youths who have died in the last few weeks, most by taking their own lives.
A few days earlier, Joshua Feinberg, 21, also a former Agoura High student, was found at the bottom of Rindge Dam in Malibu.
An official cause of death is still pending for Griffen Kramer, 18, a quarterback at Thousand Oaks High, who was found dead Oct. 30 after falling asleep at a friend's house in Thousand Oaks. Kramer was a former Agoura High student. School officials said his death might have been related to alcohol poisoning.
In mid-October, David Barseghian, a 17-year-old senior from Northridge Academy High, died when he jumped from an 18-story building at the Trillium Towers Center in Woodland Hills. The teen was clutching a rosary when he jumped, police said.
And in August, Calabasas High School student Amelia Schiff, 17, also took her life the evening of the first day of school.
The deaths have caused pain and confusion for students and staff at local high schools.
And there is one question raised again and again, not only within the Las Virgenes Unified School District, but countywide as well: What is happening among the youth?
"There are lots and lots of questions we will never have answers to," said Richard Lieberman, a psychologist for the Los Angeles Unified School District. "It's complex."
Lieberman was among the founders of the suicide prevention services within the LAUSD nearly 25 years ago. The services began when the number of suicides tripled in the 1980s and became the third leading cause of death for high school kids in the United States.
For youths between the ages of 10 and 24, suicide continues to be the third leading cause of death, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly 4,400 youths take their lives each year.
Between 1994 and 2003, there was an average of 26 youths each year who died in Los Angeles County as a result of suicide, Lieberman said. The average declined to 13 per year between 2004 to 2009, he said.
"It is such a hard topic to talk about and very often parents don't wish to discuss it as a suicide," Lieberman said. "There are no predictors of youth suicide."
But he said there are factors that can be considered, such as mental illness or chronic depression, a history of trauma and loss, breakups, alcohol and substance abuse, grief that transforms into anger, and a feeling of believing someone else is at fault. A loss of dignity that comes from being bullied also can be a factor, as well as arguments with parents.
In recent years, social networking has played a role in death by suicide too.
"In some cases, the students went home and went on their MySpace.com account and told everyone what they were going to do," Lieberman said.
The number of suicide attempts remains high as well, and Lieberman said at LAUSD it is highest among 14-year-old Latina girls. CDC statistics confirm the rate is highest among Latina teens at the national level as well.
"We see it within all socioeconomic groups and all cultures. That's the alarming part," Lieberman said.
Though they are still in school, teens are also affected by the Great Recession and the accompanying unemployment and loss of income and job opportunity. How their parents manage those stresses can have a great impact on the child's sense of security, Lieberman said.
Donald Zimring, superintendent for the Las Virgenes Unified School District, said it is difficult to pinpoint why so many deaths have occurred in the area, and why so many youths choose to end their lives.
"I think you've got a generation of kids that are under pressures that we haven't seen in the past," Zimring said. "I think it's a combination of things.
"There were clearly issues outside of the school."
Yet, the issues surface at school and both students and school leaders have begun to be more open and engaged in helping young people struggling with issues that can lead to suicide.
Last month Agoura High held its first-ever Friendship Week, with the goal of making the campus a friendly, welcoming place, and to remind students they have a support system within the school.
Zimring said despite last week's tragedy, he credits the students for doing what they were supposed to do. When classmates received Behar's text message, many contacted 911 or went to an adult immediately.
"When this incident occurred on Monday, everyone called to get this boy help," Zimring said.
He said he hoped students who attended last week's vigil do not come away glorifying the experience, but see the consequences, the permanence, of taking one's own life.
"At this age, understanding what life is about and the permanency of hurting yourself, they don't get it," Zimring said. Behar's death "was a terrifying moment."
If you go
Agoura High School, (28545 West Driver Avenue, Agoura Hills) is hosting an informational meeting for parents on the subject of teen suicide, on Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2011 at 7 p.m. 818-889-1262.
Here are some additional resources:
Suicide Prevention Center: 877-7CRISIS (877-727-4747)
Teen Line: 800-TLC-TEEN (800-852-8336)
Trevor Lifeline -- For gay and questioning youths: 866-4UTREVOR (866-488-7386)
Tips for parents and suicide prevention: From the LAUSD's School of Mental Health Suicide Prevention Services and the National Alliance on Mental Illness).
- Talk to your child about suicide. Don't be afraid; you will not be “putting ideas into their heads.” Asking for help is the single skill that will protect your child.
- Help them to identify and connect to caring adults to talk to when they need guidance.
- Know the risk factors and warning signs of suicide. Because mental disorders or substance abuse often times accompanies suicidal behavior, parents can watch for certain signs, including extreme personality change, loss of interest in activities, withdrawal from friends and family and neglect of personal appearance.
- Listen without judging. Allow for the discussion of experiences, thoughts, and feelings. Be prepared for expression of intense feelings. Try to understand the reasons for considering suicide without taking a position about whether or not such behavior is justified. Ask open-ended questions.
- Supervise constantly. Do not leave your child alone.
- Ask if your child has a plan to kill themselves, and if so, remove means. As long as it does not put the caregiver in danger, attempt to remove the suicide means such as a firearm, knife or pills.
- Take action. It is crucial to get professional help for your child and the entire family.