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Utah teen suicides

SALT LAKE CITY (ABC 4 Utah ) - The numbers are staggering. Each day two teens will attempt to commit suicide. Utah ranks 10th in the nation when it comes to teen suicide.
SALT LAKE CITY (ABC 4 Utah) – It’s the most horrific sight a parent or sibling can come across.

They often times are the ones finding their loved ones after committing suicide.

It happens quite often in Utah. According to the Utah Department of Health the state ranks 10th in the nation in teen suicides and every day two are treated for attempted suicides.

A major effort to prevent suicides happened nine years ago in Moab.

Five teens committed suicide within 18-months of each other. There was some fear at the time that there was a pact for others to do the same.

"I went right to the closet and it took me a moment to realize what I was seeing,”
recalls Sherilynn Sowell.

Her daughter, 17-year old Kelly Sowell was hanging from a clothes bar inside the closet.

"I thought she was sitting,” she says.
“Her hair which is long was over this way. I screamed her name out."

She was hoping for some response, but the senior at Grand County high school in Moab wasn't moving.

"I'd seen these dark circles all around her legs and she didn't move when I screamed her name,” says Sowell.

She went looking for her husband. Both lifted the body and tried undoing the rope around her neck.

“It was so tight, it was so impossible but it took both of us to do it right,” she says.

She tried CPR but there was no pulse.

“Kelly was gone,” she says. “(Her) last words to me (were) ‘I tried to get a hold of Cleve and couldn't’ and that was the last words my baby said to me," she says.

Mario Hernandez was 13-years old and lived a few houses from Kelly.

“I turned the corner into the closet and there he was dead,” says Sharla Lovato.

"I was looking for the key to the chain I couldn't find it. I just wanted to get him down. I didn't want him like that."

Mario had used a bike chain to hang himself in the closet.

"And I pushed his body and I say no, no,” says Lovato in a tearful voice.

Mario and Kelly were five of the teens who took their lives over an 18 month period beginning in 2004.

It all started that summer when brothers Stephen and Brandon Cannistraci committed suicide within two months of each other. Days later their friend Katherine Langdon hanged herself in Carbon County.

“We were all really scared (over the suicides),” says Principal Melinda Snow of Grand County Middle School. “It was massive rumors, people were saying there was this big pact and we would lose five more kids."

She says there was panic at her school after Mario's suicide which took place during the first days of school.

Principal Snow says none of the rumors of a pact were true. It was more of a copycat.

"He (Mario) was everybody's friend, even teachers,” she says. “Everyone adored him. Nobody saw it coming."

Certainly it was never detected by his mother, Sharla Lovato. She remembers taking Mario to Stephen's funeral.

"I go please don't ever do that to us,” Lovato says. “See all those people suffering I said that's what you're going to do to us. He said ‘yeah I would never mom.’"

Sowell knew her daughter was troubled. She says Kelly was bullied by adults and classmates after going to police.

Kelly testified in court that a popular teacher and coach Ariel Beck sexually abused her.

“She was bullied because of testifying against this person,” says her mother. “She couldn't get over it and it confused her sexual identity she couldn't get over it.”

Beck was convicted of forcible sex abuse and was sent to prison. But the case was overturned and a new trial was ordered. Kelly took her own life before the second trial. Her mother blamed Beck.

“She wasn't in the room that night but she might as well have been,” says Sowell. “She was the one who absently without being in the room put that dog lease around her neck and hung that child. Because Kelly would still be here had she not been sexually abused.”

Court records show Beck took a plea prior to the trial. She served no extra prison time but remains on the sex offender registry for ten years.

“We have been successful here in Provo because of everyone getting involved in preventing suicide,” says Dr. Greg Hudnall

At the Provo School District teachers and staff learn how suicides can be prevented. Its Dr. Hudnall’s mission after learning that one of his students committed suicide years ago. After that suicide, Dr. Hudnall set up a prevention program called www.hope4utah.com and since then he says there have not been any suicides in the Provo schools.

He also takes his suicide workshop to any Utah school seeking advice Dr. Hudnall says weeding out bullies is key. And more importantly he says listening and perception can help target a troubled student.

“Suicide can happen within a window of three hours,” Dr. Hudnall told those attending his workshop. “If someone can recognize that intense moment, there's a high percentage that suicide can be prevented.”

In 2004, Dr. Hudnall brought his expertise to Moab after the cluster of suicides. The school district took action focusing on the students.

At Mario's funeral, Principal Snow was asked to speak. She admits to not knowing much of Mario but she says she had to get her message across to the her students.

“When I said he made a bad choice he missed out on his own life and I'm looking at all those children,” recalls snow. “They have this great future in front of them and to cut it short was foolish thinking.”

Dr. Douglas Gray is head of the University of Utah's child psychiatry unit. He says glorifying suicides creates copycats.

“When you're suffering from bad depression you're in a lot of psychological pain and then someone who dies is sort of revered, it sends that signal that that's the way to go,” says Dr. Gray.

Mario's mother had no idea her son was suicidal. She found a note Mario left behind.

“(He wrote that) he would see us on the other side, that he was sorry,” says Lovato.

Dr. Gray says 90% of teens who commit suicide have one thing in common.

“Most youth suicide is caused by mental illness, usually untreated or under treated,” he says.

In the case of Kelly Sowell she was bullied after accusing Beck of sexually molesting her. Her mother didn't see it coming.

"Had I read this letter (that she found in Kelly’s room), I think she wanted me to read it,” says her mother. “And when I didn't she was hurt that I didn't."

Dr. Gray says a teen sends signals that something is wrong.

“And whether it's a parent, teacher, sibling or a friend, its okay to talk about it,” Dr. Gray says. “One thing people worry a lot about is if they talk about suicide or ask about it, it will somehow create a problem or make someone more prone to suicide and that's not true.”

Sometimes a teen does get a second chance. Attempted suicides are common. According to the Utah Department of Health two teens attempt suicide daily. A drug overdose nearly took a West Jordan teen’s life.

“I didn't see my life going anywhere,” says the teen who did not want to be identified. “I didn't see any point I just wanted all the pain to end.”

He says pressure to get straight A's was too much for him to handle.

“He (uncle) expected so much for me I didn't feel I could do it,” the teen says. So I stopped trying.”

He's now in therapy and he says getting help was the best thing that happened to him during his crisis.

“She says whenever I feel suicidal pull it out (medallion) and it will make me remember how everyone else will feel when I kill myself,” says the teen.

He is a survivor. But there are so many who don't get a second chance.

To learn more about prevention, help and other advice the following websites offer information.

www.hope4utah.com
www.suicidology.org/home
http://www.sprc.org/states/utah
http://www.namiut.org/inform-yourself/suicide-prevention



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