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Teen suicide: Starting the conversation with your child

Teen suicide
Posted at 6:33 PM, Jan 12, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-12 23:23:17-05

PHOENIX — It is a sensitive issue that has been impacting so many families in Arizona. State officials reported more than 40 teen suicides in Arizona in 2020. These are not just numbers, they are deaths that are impacting neighborhoods, schools, and families.

ABC15 sat down with Valley moms impacted by the loss of a child to suicide. Most of these mothers will tell you, they never saw it coming. They may have known their child had some school or relationship-related stress, but they never imagined their children would take it to the extreme of taking their own lives over it.

Jacob Matthew Alvarado was one of those teens. His mother Samantha Whirley says he seemed like a happy child. He was popular and had many friends. Alvarado was known to be the 'class clown" and nicknamed "Dr. Phil" by friends who came to him seeking advice. He loved to help other people with their problems. Whirley says she had no idea the weight of his own problems was bringing him down because he kept things to himself, and always put on a happy face for others.

"He was at a concert 5-days before he died, he was playing basketball the day before he died," said Whirley.

In an ironic twist of fate, one year after Jacob Alvarado completed suicide, Whirley got a letter in the mail. It was from her son Jacob, addressed to Jacob.

"He mailed it out to himself. I believe it was his Junior year, they have you write a letter to your future self," said Whirley. She added that the letter had been a school assignment. Reading it a year after her son's death gave Whirley chilling insight into the pain her son was feeling, and thoughts he did not share with anyone else in his life. She read ABC15 part of Alvarado's letter to his 'future' self.

"Dear future self, if you're reading this, you probably haven't done what you've been contemplating for years, so good for you. Although it's probably because you were too scared. Your life is worthless. Honestly, don't try to love yourself, it's only going to make the pain worse. If you are indeed reading this, you're still living at home. Just get out of there. You're nothing but a burden there. Don't ever think of coming back. Sincerely, You."

Like Whirley, mother LeAnn Hull also had no idea of the amount of stress her child Andy Hull felt in the last days of his life. Andy was a star baseball pitcher who played on the high school varsity team. College coaches were calling him and Major League Baseball scouts were also keeping an eye on his game. LeAnn says Andy got good grades and because of his personality, friends had nicknamed him 'Sunshine'.

"We really focused on grades, grades, grades with all of our children," said Hull. She said Andy had been taking medication for acne that came with a warning of possible side-effects, including depression and thoughts of suicide. Hull says she noticed big changes in Andy's level of concentration and mood after he started taking that medication, but she never imagined it would lead to him taking his own life.

"I probably in retrospect would have had more conversations with him. Helping him understand that no matter what happens with grades, baseball, or scouts, none of it really matters in the long term," she added.

Hull has spent the last few years lobbying for state laws to increase training for teachers and counselors in our schools to learn to recognize the red flags of a teen who may need help. Her life is now dedicated to letting all children know, they matter. Hull has created a foundation called "Andy Hull's Sunshine Foundation" and talks to schools all over the country about the difficult subject of suicide. To learn more about her foundation, CLICK HERE.

While it is important to train our teachers and counselors to recognize the warning signs, Hull says these conversations should also be taking place at home.

"As adults, we don't model coping skills for them really well. That would be my biggest advice, lesson," said Hull. "Instead of pouring yourself a glass of wine to deal with stress what else can you do? Just know that your children are watching how you react to things. We don't realize that what we are doing is affecting them as well," she added.

In Whirley's case, she believed her son's self-limiting beliefs may have stemmed from her choosing to stay in an abusive relationship for the 'sake of the children'.

"It ended up leading to self-limiting beliefs and doubts in himself that I didn't even know that he had," said Whirley.

Mental health experts advise parents to let their children know, it is okay to talk about their feelings. Let them know the pain or bad feelings you have after a bad situation such as a break up will not last forever, encourage them to open up to adults in their lives even if it is not you, maybe an aunt or uncle who can act as a trusted sounding board. Also, mental health experts advise, there is nothing wrong with discussing teen suicide with your child. It is okay to ask them if they are having thoughts of self-harm.

"Parents are afraid to even bring it up, to even begin that discussion of suicide because they are still under the misconception that if we talk about it, they're going to act on it. Or I'm going to put ideas in their head. That is absolutely false. It has been proven to be false," said Hull.

So how do you broach the sensitive subject of suicide with your child? Experts have put together a step-by-step guide on how to talk about these deaths with your children, depending on their age. When it comes to high school aged children, experts say it is not a question of if you should have the talk, but when. It is important to discuss mental health issues with your teen, and let them know there is nothing wrong with seeking help.

For more specific information on how to talk to your child about suicide CLICK HERE.