Parents, friends and teachers share their thoughts on suicide and the death of two local teens
Last Thursday, Chico and Pleasant Valley High seniors received their diplomas. The graduation ceremony is a historic moment for any teenager, one they have no doubt pictured in their minds a thousand times: Walking across the stage, moving the tassel on their cap from one side to the other, their proud parents snapping photos and growing teary-eyed from some indistinguishable place in the crowd, cheers erupting from their friends’ smiling faces.
It is a time of signing yearbooks and senior barbecues. The only thing more exciting is the arrival of summer and the prospect of college and the rest of their lives. They have the world at their fingertips.
Or so it seems. While graduation is exciting, it is also daunting. For some kids, the pressures of high school and being a teen are too much to take. And, so, every year, teens take their lives.
Suicide is a topic that seems far away. It’s like a sleeping infant—can’t say too much, or too loudly; might wake the baby. Case in point: Orland High drama teacher Tim Milhorn’s play about teen suicide, which was banned from the campus this past school year.
Yet, for North State residents in particular, it is a topic worthy of healthy conversation. Seniors at both CHS and PV went through commencement without one of their classmates, as graduates have at many schools state- and nationwide.
Anna Zamudio was an artist. An “amazing painter.” She was friendly, conversational, someone who “knew everyone” and seemed “super happy.” A senior at Pleasant Valley High School, she wanted to go to San Francisco to pursue her art. The day before she took her own life, she turned in an art project she had spent months working on.
Her principal thinks that it may have been “what kept her going.”
“Everything was unforeseen,” said close friend James Hahn. He found out about his friend’s death when she wasn’t on the bus that day home from school.
The day after her death, on Feb. 6, Hahn and some pals set up a memorial on PV’s campus. “It started off with one desk, one poster, and ended up becoming massive,” said Hahn.
Nick Garber was a popular senior at Chico High, a football player and member of the ski team. He was friendly, well-liked and seemingly “on track,” according to Dianne Wrona, a senior media library assistant at Chico High. He was courteous, but “not always quiet,” she said with a laugh.
Upon his death (officially ruled a suicide), the ski team made stickers with his football jersey number 55, and dedicated the ski season to him. The stickers became so popular that the student store began to sell them.
“When it happens in your own school, it really hits home,” said Kelly Staley, superintendent of the Chico Unified School District.
Neither Anna nor Nick seemed to fit the bill as the type of person one might think would be at risk for suicide. They didn’t seem depressed, or show signs of unhappiness. But it happened, and now everyone seems to be asking one question: Why?
“Stress,” said Sam Saldana, 17, a friend of Anna’s, without hesitation.
Any number of issues can affect teens, and oftentimes they don’t know how to deal with them. Anger. A need to fit in or be liked. Sex. Substance abuse. Family problems. Disappointment. Rejection. Being bullied. And, almost always, depression.
“Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem,” said Dave Scott, director of student support services for the Chico Unified School District. “A lot of young people, when they are in a situation, cannot see beyond it.”
“As teenagers,” Wrona said, “their mountains are really molehills.” When they have a problem, they want it solved, and they don’t know how to deal with all those emotions. “They’re not old enough to know how to weather those moments. They go to extremes.”
Adults sometimes underestimate the pressure that teens are under, especially junior high and high school students.
It can be a “horrible” time in a person’s life, said mother Susan Spann, whose son Drew became suicidal in junior high at age 14 and made several attempts before dying in a car accident at age 21.
“He just didn’t fit in”; he wasn’t a jock, he wasn’t a nerd, Spann said.
And while not “fitting in” can seem like a molehill to an adult, to teenagers, it can be catastrophic. Whether they go on living, Spann said, “might be the only thing they have control on.”
Chico isn’t the only place struck by the sadness of teen suicide these past few months.
Shortly after Nick’s death on New Year’s Day, two Foothill High School students in Redding committed suicide just days apart from one another. Two would-be graduates from the same school in Palo Alto threw themselves in front of a Caltrain at almost the exact same spot—one a month ago and the other just last week, a day before her graduation. (A third student attempted to throw himself in front of the same train just two days later, on June 4. His mother was able to stop him.)
The statistics are astounding.
Suicide is the third-leading cause of death in young adults, aged 15 to 24, and is the second-leading cause of death among college students. It’s more common than homicide. So, basically, you are more likely to kill yourself than to be murdered.
Also, the highest rate of completed suicide is among young adults.
“There are a lot of theories as to why this may be,” said Brandon Walters of Chico’s Homeless Emergency Runaway Effort, or HERE, a program for troubled youth. “Not a lot of experience in learning how to cope with stressors, little experience getting through a crummy situation, onset of mental illness,” and the list goes on.
One of the troubling and fascinating aspects of suicide is that it’s a death that often makes no sense. All the survivors really have to go on are theories, and they are often left wondering: “What did I miss? Could I have helped?”
One can only assume that, in those final moments, the person felt he or she was putting an end to suffering. But then the suffering begins for loved ones.
“Suicide compounds pain exponentially. All of the suicide survivors feel excruciating pain. And the person who died by suicide can no longer feel, and thus there is no relief from pain,” wrote Kevin Caruso on suicide.org, a Web site dedicated to helping people understand warning signs and preventing suicide.
Why, then, are young people, with everything to live for, opting “out”?
For some students, the problem goes beyond just “fitting in.” For some young people, their suicidal thoughts stem from a lack of mental health.
In 2007, nearly 15 percent of U.S. high school students admitted to having seriously considered suicide.
The No. 1 cause of suicide is untreated depression. Depression is a prolonged period of sadness that distorts your view of the world, giving you “depression-colored glasses.” It occurs because of an imbalance of chemicals in the brain, and for some it can overwhelm every aspect of their life.
Approximately 30,000 people commit suicide every year in the United States, while 750,000 attempt it. More than 90 percent of people who commit suicide are mentally ill at the time of their death.
This poses the question: Does someone have to be mentally ill to commit suicide?
“Not necessarily,” said Mike Little, of the National Alliance for Mental Illness—but at the time of doing the deed, “perhaps.”
One very strong advocate for mental-health awareness is Spann, who used to sleep outside her son’s bedroom at night for fear he would hurt himself.
Spann describes Drew fondly as a “charmer.” Everyone who was around him liked him, she said. He seemed to know who he was, at least until the depression set in.
Drew was diagnosed as bi-polar when he was 15 years old. Throughout his teen years he was hospitalized seven times, and 5150’d (put on involuntary psychiatric hold) three times. He self-mutilated himself as a way to release his frustrations.
He alienated himself, his grades went down, he had trouble sleeping and he was “real moody.” He listened to depressing music, his style of dress changed drastically, Spann noticed scabs on his arms, and there was “a lot of anger.”
“He didn’t know what he was angry at,” Spann said.
She learned early on that she had to fight for her child.
“You have to be a strong advocate for your child or they don’t get help,” Spann said. That means being nosy, having doors slammed in your face and things thrown at you, she said with a wry laugh.
One program that really helped her son was HERE, an all-encompassing program for any teen who is “homeless, hungry, stressed out, mad at (their) parents, lonely, sad, pregnant, a runaway, having alcohol/drug problems,” etc.
“You have no idea” how many calls HERE gets from suicidal teens, friends or family members, Walters, a senior behavioral health counselor at HERE, said emphatically. “You’re talking thousands. Five hundred kids a year, easily.” And that is just in Butte County.
Spann’s mental health wars are just a bleak memory now. Drew died in a car accident in 2005, but she is still a strong champion for mental health, and for young people. Advocate for them, talk to them, and be there for them, she says to all parents, whether their child is mentally ill or just depressed and stressed.
She marveled at a child’s ability to take his or her own life—to debate internally, to follow through, and not to have any what-ifs. “You have to be really strong to do that,” Spann said, her big green eyes staring out from beneath wide glasses frames.
It is one of the reasons suicide is more prevalent in males than females.
Boys tend to be more impulsive, and their methods of action more “lethal,” said CUSD’s Scott. Males are less likely to seek help for depression. They are also less likely to recognize that they have a problem. They tend to try to anesthetize their problems with drugs and alcohol.
Girls, on the other hand, are more likely to be depressed, and are more likely to attempt suicide, but are less likely to succeed. Girls are also more likely to tell a friend how they are feeling.
The standard rule with guys is that they typically don’t talk about their feelings, Scott said—and if a male does reach out to a friend, that friend would likely “brush it off.” The worst thing you can say to a person with suicidal thoughts is, “It’s not that bad.”
There are many who look not to why someone has committed suicide, but to how it can be prevented.
Sue Baber is a prevention/intervention specialist at Chico High, and she calls her office a “revolving door.” She deals with students facing stress, depression and any number of issues on a regular basis. She is trying to look on the brighter side of these tragedies.
“The fact that there were these recent suicides, it became a good teachable moment to me,” she said. It is a great time to have discussions on all matters teen-related, she said as she flitted around her office.
Baber is warm and comforting, with shoulder-length blonde hair and red-framed, rectangular glasses. She seems like the perfect person for a teen to come to when faced with any sort of emotional issue.
Her office is covered with wall-to-wall photos of her students. Bright, happy faces shine down on you from Chico High’s Hip-Hop Movement, On Point dance team and Friday Night Live, to name a few. She has poems on her walls written by students on why not to take drugs. It’s hard to imagine that among these lit-up faces are those crying out for help.
Baber’s office is a place where students can come to discuss problems. It is a “relaxed, positive and non-judgmental” environment, Baber said. They can get resources, sign up for classes, learn the seven habits of highly effective teens, or just talk. If the teen prefers to seek help outside the school, Baber also has a list of professional people not affiliated with the school.
“When all these events occurred, we were on red alert,” Baber said. “We take these situations very seriously.”
Following the suicides there were two information sessions held by the school district, one at Chico High and one at PV, to discuss signs and symptoms and to promote awareness. Both events were well attended by students, parents, faculty, staff and community members.
“There are always some signs,” said Spann, who spoke at the information session at PV, no matter how minor they may be.
A sudden drop in grades, isolation, increased apathy, change in attendance pattern, physical symptoms: changes in sleeping patterns, eating patterns, chronic headaches/ stomach aches, and changes in interaction with friends or family are a few of the signs a person may be suicidal.
Oftentimes, friends are more likely to notice or be approached than teachers or parents.
When someone is approached by a friend with thoughts of suicide, it is “so important” for that person to alert an adult or a teacher, even if he or she has promised not to, Baber said.
“You gotta see the bigger picture there,” she said. “That is a reach for help. It is not a breach of friendship.”
For John Shepherd, principal at Pleasant Valley, this is new territory. Taking over after Steve Connolly retired in December, Shepherd was the interim principal starting in January and only recently took over the full principalship.
Anna Zamudio’s death was an “interesting” way to start his tenure, to say the least. “It actually provided a lot of perspective for me and for our staff,” Shepherd said.
When Anna took her life at the beginning of February, there was a lot of “shock, disbelief and denial” for those at PV. There was also a huge outpouring of concern for the students, he said.
“I became more aware,” Shepherd said. “Students and parents became more aware.”
Their goal, at that point, was to make every student feel connected to PV. “We are a community,” he said—and they are doing everything they can to try to prevent this sort of tragedy. That includes a bullying hotline for students to call if they are being harassed; an at-risk counselor, John Siebal; peer mediation, and a “link crew” that brings upperclassmen together with lowerclassmen.
It is about “connecting students with resources,” Shepherd said. “I can’t wrap my mind around what would be so traumatic that one couldn’t reach out for help.”
But Shepherd’s biggest concern is about it “ending”—“I don’t ever want to have to talk to parents about their kid dying.”
Orland teacher Tim Milhorn echoes Shepherd’s sentiments. He has even written a play on the matter. In 30 years of teaching, he has had six students, one friend, and his 24-year-old nephew commit suicide.
It was his nephew Sean’s death 10 years ago that inspired him to write Tender Yellow Sky, which was banned at Orland High but performed at the Blue Room Theatre in January. His nephew put a gun in his mouth in front of a laundromat in Chico and was found the following morning by a 9-year-old girl. The suicide note left to his parents contained only two words: “Sorry, Dad.”
“I have never seen someone so in the throes of grief as his mother was,” Milhorn said of the funeral.
Many people, including at one time Milhorn, look at suicide as a selfish, almost mean act. But that’s not the case, he said: “[Suicide] is not malicious. Every suicide is such a convoluted, complex thing.”
The problems consuming the individuals are so overwhelming, it is their only focal point, Milhorn said; they can’t think this is going to affect my family. “You live it, you breathe it. The only way out is to carry yourself.”
The No. 1 feeling for survivors after a suicide is guilt, Milhorn said. It leaves you asking, “What could I have done?”
With his play, Milhorn at least has his answer. The goal of Tender Yellow Sky was to show kids that “there is a light, there is help,” he said.
Over the years, Milhorn has developed a sort of “sixth sense” for picking out troubled kids. The answer for how to help them? Talking.
Milhorn unwittingly helped a student of his from the brink of disaster just by talking to her, he said. She later told him that he had saved her life, for which he felt “honored.”
As Chico High and Pleasant Valley graduates march into the future, all educators and parents and other concerned citizens can hope for is that they’ve learned a lesson through Nick’s and Anna’s deaths, that other students feeling they have no other way out will seek help rather than ending their lives before they’ve ever really begun.
The art studio at Pleasant Valley dedicated a bench on campus to “Anna Z.” It sits in between buildings D and M—a beautiful, blue landmark with one resounding quote:
“Madness take the world alive. If left here it will soon subside. Don’t ever leave this world behind.”