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Teen suicide prevention: Highlighting the warning signs and what is being done in Arizona

Posted at 6:00 AM, Jan 16, 2019
and last updated 2019-01-17 01:03:03-05

PHOENIX — It is a tough and sensitive thing to talk about, but with the increase in the number of teen suicides taking place across Arizona, advocates are working hard to raise awareness and make changes in state law to help cut down on the number of youth who are taking their own lives.

Numbers ABC15 has obtained from Teen Lifeline show 88 teen suicides reported in 2016 and 2017 combined. The numbers for 2018 have not been released yet. Christine Nguyen who founded the East Valley Coalition for suicide prevention said numbers they were tracking just in the East Valley indicated 32 teens died by suicide in the last 17 months alone.

Nguyen called the numbers alarming.

"These kids walk into class, there's an empty chair now. For every one suicide, there are 25 attempts statistically," said Nguyen.

One place that dealt with teenagers in crisis was the Teen Lifeline crisis call center set up in Phoenix. Inside the building specially trained teenagers worked to take calls and help other teens who need help.


Counselors said Teen Lifeline received more than 23,000 calls and nearly 1,400 text messages from troubled youth throughout Arizona in 2018. This was a 12% increase from 2017. Numbers show 16% of those calls came in from children under 13 years old and 45 percent of them from callers who were between 13 and 15 years old.

Most of the callers were dealing with thoughts of suicide, depression, trouble at school, fights with a significant other, or family issues.

"There should be no stigma attached to reaching out for help. We struggle as humans, and we are just that, humans that deal with life's crisis and life's problems," said Nikki Kontz, a clinical director at Teen Lifeline.

Kontz added that they knew lives had been saved, and there were children calling into the center who had been too scared to speak up before. They also received calls for help from parents who worried about a child, or a friend who had seen warning signs or something troubling someone had posted on social media.

Kontz said they welcomed all of those calls, especially because sometimes an adult may not know how to talk about suicide or warning signs with a child. Experts said how you talk about this sensitive subject can make a big difference in a child's life.

RELATED: World Suicide Prevention Day: Arizona districts confronting teen suicides

"When it comes to adults, a lot of times we look at our children and think, oh your crisis isn't that big but we're forgetting for them it's everything. In their world this is the first time they're ever experiencing some of these emotions, these feelings, and these experiences," said Kontz.

She offered some "do's and don'ts" when it came to talking about teen suicide.

They need to talk to them age appropriately but they don't need to be scared of the word. The fact is our children tend 10-13 even younger than 10 know that word, they know what it means.

Kontz advised families to teach their children problem solving and coping skills from an early age. Let them know they can talk to you, or suggest others they can talk to if they feel too scared to talk to you. Help foster those relationships so they feel comfortable going to another person. Kontz also advised that when parents were struggling with a problem, be aware that your children are paying attention to how you cope. Be transparent with your children and let them know how you get help, and how you behave on social media.

"Don't be afraid to say the word suicide. If you ask someone are you having thoughts of suicide? It gives them permission to be honest. You don't want to say you're not suicidal, are you? Instead you want to say, I see there's changes and I'm worried about you and I feel like you're giving up. Are you having thoughts of suicide? Or have you had thoughts of suicide?" said Kontz.

Andy Hull was a star baseball player, Jake Denslow is described as caring and sensitive by his family, along with talented musician Tyler Hedstrom are all teens who took their own lives in the Valley.

Their families, who are still deeply mourning their loss have now turned to advocacy, public speaking, and lobbying to make sure other families don't suffer the pain they have.

The families were working with a group of Arizona lawmakers to come up with new laws that could help prevent more teen suicides.

Some of these laws could require mandatory suicide prevention training for Arizona teachers.

"We're not asking them to become counselors. We're not asking them to become social workers. We are asking them to be our eyes and years while our children are in front of them," said LeAnn Hull, who lost her son Andy to suicide.

There is also talk of laws having to do with mandatory reporting of warning signs, and laws improving insurance coverage for mental and behavioral health treatment for our youth on the table.

Last year an effort to make suicide prevention training mandatory for teachers did not get a hearing.

This year the moms feel the mood has been different.

The number of teen suicides have got the attention of many lawmakers who are now working together for change.

State Representative Jeff Weninger from Chandler is one of them.

"It's astonishing, it's troubling, and it's been building for a long time," Weninger said.

"Our teachers spend more time with our kids than we do during the school year," said Ben Denslow, who lost his son Jake.

So far at least 53 school districts have printed the Teen Lifeline crisis hotline number on the back of all student ID's.

The moms involved in this mission commended those districts and encouraged those who have been slower to talk about teen suicide to take strides and do more.

According to mental health experts a person contemplating suicide may exhibit the following behaviors:

They may talk about killing themselves, or feeling hopeless. You may hear them saying they feel hopeless or like a burden to others. You may notice them turning to drugs or alcohol. Withdrawal and isolation are also big red flags. They may sleep too much or too little and start giving away prized possessions, and visiting or calling people to say goodbye. Mood changes may include everything from depression to anxiety to loss of interest, irritability, humiliation/shame, anger or a sudden feeling of improvement and relief.

Information posted offers detailed warning signs, symptoms of teen depression.

The website states teenage depression isn’t just bad moods and the occasional feeling down or blue—it’s a serious problem that impacts every aspect of a teen’s life. For more information on understanding teen depression visit

Here is a look at some of the symptoms:

These symptoms must last for at least two weeks and be present most of the day every day.

  • Feeling sad, teary, or grouchy – generally depressed. Depression is a strong mood that involves other emotions like sadness, discouragement, despair and hopelessness.
  • Losing interest in things you used to like
  • Trouble sleeping: Sleeping too much or too little
  • Changes in appetite or weight: Significant weight loss when not dieting or weight gain.
  • Feeling tired or restless all the time
  • Feeling guilty or worthless, like you’re a “bad person”
  • Difficulty concentrating in school
  • Preoccupation with death or dying
  • You find it hard to participate in everyday activities

Also, consider the physical signs of depression:

  • Body pains and muscle tension
  • Upset Stomach/Digestive Problems
  • Dizziness
  • Frequent crying
  • Over sensitivity
  • Angry outbursts

Some differences between teenage and adult depression:

Depression in teens can look very different from adults. The following symptoms of depression are more common in teenagers:

  • Irritable or angry mood – Irritability, rather than sadness, is often the predominant mood in depressed teens. A depressed teenager may be grumpy, hostile, easily frustrated, or prone to angry outbursts.
  • Unexplained aches and pains – Depressed teens frequently complain about physical ailments such as headaches or stomach aches. If a thorough physical exam does not reveal a medical cause, these aches and pains may indicate depression.
  • Extreme sensitivity to criticism – Depressed teens are overcome by feelings of worthlessness, making them extremely vulnerable to criticism, rejection, and failure. This is a particular problem for “over-achievers.”
  • Withdrawing from some, but not all people –Depressed teenagers usually keep up at least some friendships, while adults may completely isolate themselves. However, teens with depression may socialize less than before, pull away from their parents, or start hanging out with a different crowd.

What should you do if you feel depressed? It can feel difficult and sometimes impossible to take that first step to help yourself. With the right skills, support, and services you can get better! For more tips and tools on how to help yourself or a friend visit:

Here are some helpful tips on ways to manage your depression:

If you or anyone you know is showing signs of depression or anxiety please call staff at Teen Lifeline want you to know that you're not alone.

You can call them 24 hours a day 7 days a week at 602-248-8336 (TEEN) or statewide in Arizona at 800-248-8336 (TEEN). Teen volunteers are answering phones from 3PM to 9PM everyday. If you call outside those hours there are other professionals there to help you.