Larry LaRue: Gig Harbor looks for way to prevent another teen suicide

Staff WriterDecember 9, 2013 

Mary Pat Lancefield was with her two young daughters at a Gig Harbor soccer game two years ago when the news arrived with one of their teammates.

“Someone in their school who was the friend of a friend had killed himself,” Lancefield said, remembering. “It was upsetting to everyone, and I had to have a talk with my daughters I’d hoped would wait until they were a little older.

“It couldn’t.”

Lancefield is a clinical social worker with Franciscan Health System, a woman who’s seen first-hand in her job the devastation that often follows a suicide.

“Friends can be concerned about their friends at school but not know what to do about it,” she said. “They don’t want to lose trust by saying something, so they feel helpless. And if something happens, they feel guilt.”

More and more, that something is happening in Pierce County schools. Suicide committed by kids ages 14 to 17 has been a problem confronting Gig Harbor and the Olympic Peninsula for years.

One study showed 38 suicides in Pierce County from 2002 to 2011, and 10 of those occurred in the Gig Harbor area.

Chaplain Chuck Elliot, a volunteer with the Gig Harbor fire district, is often called upon to notify next of kin when a teen commits suicide. Those calls come far too often.

“Over the last four years, I’ve probably gone out seven times, three times with one family alone,” Elliot said. “Three brothers committed suicide within a three-year period. Two hanged themselves from the same tree in a park near the Purdy prison.”

The issue isn’t a school problem, nor a family problem. In Gig Harbor, it’s considered a community problem — one the community is trying to work through.

Since June 2011, the Gig Harbor Suicide Prevention Coalition has been confronting teen suicide head on.

Lancefield and Elliot are part of it, along with area school counselors, teachers and occasional visitors such as Police Chief Mike Davis, who wants to ensure his officers are empowered to make good decisions.

“If we were contacted by a student or parent concerned about a youngster in trouble, I could see a uniformed officer saying ‘we don’t deal with that,’ ” Davis said. “That’s the value of this education program. I don’t want my officers in that situation. I want a notebook filled with contact information available.

“I’d want us to meet with the parents and child and talk it over, to serve as the introduction to other resources.”

Part of the coalition’s training programs — they’ve had two and a third will take place this week — has been to reach out to students and adults. Each training session, limited to 30 people, has discussed warning signs and suggested responses.

“Kids keep on stuffing it down when it comes to pain and frustration,” said Todd Dempewolf, a coalition member who works as a counselor at Gig Harbor High School. “Humans aren’t built that way, they can’t keep it in. We try to give them options, support.”

When the coalition did informal polling last year, the results weren’t encouraging. The Peninsula School District, for instance, had a crisis plan for teens in trouble, but teachers not only didn’t know what it said, they didn’t know it existed.

Parents said they didn’t know whom to contact if their child was dealing with suicidal thoughts. And students said they weren’t likely to talk to an adult if they had such problems.

The coalition has come up with a Peninsula resource guide. It includes the names and telephone numbers of mental health workers and programs available without driving across the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.

The goal is to keep training students, teachers and counselors, 30 at a time, and asking that those who go through the seminars share what they learn with others.

“It may not be getting out the word to everyone as fast as we’d like, but it’s changing the subject from unspeakable to one you can talk about,” Lancefield said.

Chief Davis said every-one who works with teens needs to learn how to deal with the topic of suicide.

“Kids are under a tremendous amount of stress from high expectations,” Davis said. “They’re supposed to be pretty and fit, then there’s the pressure of unspoken expectations. We don’t know how to deal with it as police, but we’re trying to change that.”

Larry LaRue: 253-597-8638 larry.larue@ thenewstribune.com

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