May 28, 2004

Psychiatric hospital addresses youth suicide

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Martin P. Sandler, M.D.

Psychiatric hospital addresses youth suicide

Several months after Clark Flatt’s youngest son, Jason, shot and killed himself in July 1997, the Hendersonville father decided to turn his grief into something positive.

The Hendersonville resident founded The Jason Foundation in October 1997, a national program that addresses the “silent epidemic” of youth suicide through awareness and prevention strategies.

The foundation presents educational seminars and resource programs nationally to young people, parents, teachers, and other youth workers and provides the tools and necessary resources to help identify at-risk individuals and find local help.

An important tool provided in the foundation’s affiliate offices across the nation is the Community Assistance Resource Line (CARL), a 24-hour-a-day, 7-day-a-week phone resource. CARL can provide professional assistance in assessing the threat of possible suicide as well as helping connect the caller with local professional mental health resources.

Since April, The Psychiatric Hospital at Vanderbilt is the foundation’s Middle Tennessee affiliate, receiving phone calls from the foundation through its 24-hour Respond phone triage service. Vanderbilt Chancellor Gordon Gee is on the foundation’s board of directors.

Suicide ranks as the third leading cause of death for young people ages 15-24 and the second leading cause of death for college age youth, according to The Jason Foundation. In the past 12 years, more young people have been lost to suicide than the total American lives lost in the Vietnam War.

Suicide rates have tripled since 1970 for young people, and in ages 10-14, suicide rates have increased by 128 percent.

According to a report released in 2002 by the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse sponsored by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) 3 million teens seriously considered suicide in 2000. And of that number over 1 million actually attempted suicide — 19,000 attempts each week or almost two each minute.

“My vision of a teen who would commit suicide didn’t look anything like Jason,” Flatt said of his 16-year-old son. “The reality is the majority of young people lost to this tragedy are the average to better than average students and youth – the athletes, valedictorians, class officers and leaders. Jason was a B/C student and an above average athlete with a lot of friends and no history of drug or alcohol abuse. He was an active churchgoer, what you’d call an ‘all American kid,” he said.

But Flatt said looking back there were signs of the impending suicide, signs he didn’t recognize. Through The Jason Foundation friends and parents are educated to look for “out of character” changes in the life of a young person – irritability, isolation, declining grades, recklessness, and giving up favorite activities. The changes may be sudden or develop over a period of time.

“If I could help it, I didn’t want to sit back and let another parent lose a son or daughter,” Flatt said, adding that the affiliation with the Psychiatric Hospital at Vanderbilt is already saving lives. “I know of at least four critical incidents of teens who have needed help and have received it through Vanderbilt.”

Ann Cross, director of patient care services and CEO of PHV, said she is excited that the hospital is able to participate in The Jason Foundation’s endeavor. “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem, and since kids are so impulsive, many don’t understand its finality,” she said. “Clark’s commitment to saving other young people through The Jason Foundation is quite remarkable.”

Greg Alberico, director of the PHV’s Respond program, said that the calls received at PHV have ranged from a teen worried about a friend whose parents were divorcing (the staff at the PHV helped her identify a trusted adult she could talk to) to an adult who called because a friend’s daughter was cutting herself.

“We developed a plan to talk to the mother of the teen, and after talking to her we discovered there was some alleged sexual abuse and the teen was receiving no current mental health services,” Alberico said. “When it was determined the teen was not suicidal, we gave the mom some outpatient referrals.”

University of Tennessee football coach Phillip Fulmer is the foundation’s national spokesperson. Vanderbilt University football coach Bobby Johnson also serves as a spokesperson for Tennessee.