Stayin' Alive

Mike Males
c Los Angeles Times, Opinion, December 14, 1997

LA teen suicide is down sharply. No one seems to know (or care) why

The vital statistics couldn't be more stark or hopeful. A quarter-century ago, in the early 1970s, an average of 100 Los Angeles teenagers committed suicide every year. Another 400 teenage deaths were ruled as “accidents” annually -- including gunshot, drug overdose, asphyxiation, drowning, car crash, and other mostly self-inflicted deaths that coroners suspect harbor many undetected suicides.

In the 1990s, in a bigger teenage population, an average of 60 L.A. teens commit suicide, and 170 die in accidents, every year. Youthful drug overdose deaths have dropped an astonishing 90%. Self-destructive deaths, suicide and accident alike, are down by half, dramatically rarer today than among teens of 25 years ago.

Teenagers are the leading edge of California's demise of personal demise. Suicides and self-destructive deaths are down sharply among all ages. Californians once infamous for leaping into the void, from Hollywood Sign to Golden Gate, recorded their lowest suicide levels in 1996 in a century of record keeping.

But “hope” is not an operative concept in modern stereotypes of teenagers. Experts proclaim every adolescent problem is rocketing upward. L.A.'s huge decline in youthful self-destruction wasn't supposed to happen. Officially, therefore, it didn't happen.

Because California's suicide decline was unexpected and unrecognized, no one appears to have studied why it occurred. The decline in suicide and other self-destructive deaths was stronger among young people, women, and those who employ the so-called "softer" methods of drugs, other poisons, and drownings than those who use the more violent means of guns, jumping, or hanging. The suicide plummet began in the urban coastal counties and has now spread to inland and rural areas. New state Center for Health Statistics figures show California's suicide toll fell by a record 400 from 1995 to 1996 alone, registering declines in 14 of the state's 15 largest counties.

The fact that California's population is increasingly nonwhite may play a small, though contradictory, part. African Americans, Asian, and Latinos have lower suicide rates, but higher fatal accident rates, than European whites. Further, suicide among nonwhite youths supposedly has been rising rapidly elsewhere in the U.S. -- but fell in California. Racial change does not explain the mystery.

Nor do programs. The suicide decrease began well before the modern prevention efforts of the mid-1980s. However, it may be related to the quieter, longer-term efforts of innovative California services such as L.A.'s Suicide Prevention Network, whose crisis lines and counseling programs go back 40 years. Or it could be rooted in unknown, healthy social currents among California's ever-surprising populations that we urgently need to know about.

Historically, California has been identified with paradoxical self-obliteration. In 1914, a New York paper smugly cited rampant suicide in “the pleasure loving... Californian cities;” San Francisco “has the highest suicide rate of all, and is followed by San Diego and Sacramento, and these by Los Angeles and Oakland.”

True then, and even more so for the next six decades. In 1970, Angelinos killed themselves at double the national rate; San Franciscans triple. “To say they jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge at the rate of one per month is only highlighting the dramatic,” wrote offbeat historian Curt Gentry in his 1969 Last Days of the Late Great State classic on a culture doomed by psychology and seismology. Hundreds more, he noted, chose “more mundane finales.”

Yet a quarter century later, in July 1993, the San Francisco Chronicle's front page would puzzle over “a new kind of mystery... deaths that didn't occur.” The city's population grew, as did urban distress from poverty to AIDS to homelessness, yet suicides dropped from 280 in 1970 to 125 in 1996. Likewise, L.A. County's population rose by 2.5 million in the last quarter century, but annual suicides fell by 600. For both, suicide rates are lower today than at any time since records were first compiled in 1900. Up and down California's coast, suicide itself is jumping off the cliff.

Experts' failure to notice, let alone study, the state's suicide plummet is baffling. California's suicide decline did not require mathematical wizardry to uncover. It looms large in Department of Health Services statistics. Back in 1981, former state health statistician Kay Moser reported to a legislative hearing, attended by leading authorities, that since 1970, “in the United States suicide rates have increased 35.6% for teenagers 15 to 19 while they have decreased by 30% in California.” The surprised committee chair declared the “good news” meant maybe we should just leave those kids alone.

However, powerful interests had no use for good news. In the 1980s, Congressional hearings and American Psychological Association investigation revealed that the burgeoning psychiatric hospital industry had targeted teenagers to fill empty beds in overbuilt facilities. Suddenly, the “epidemic of teen suicide” appeared in news splashes and hospital ads depicting youths holding guns to their heads and parents weeping over graves. A study of 11,000 California adolescents in psychiatric treatment found that youth with health insurance were committed for twice as long as those without.

Sensitive to parent's fears that young people might be self-destructing as never before, the California Department of Education consulted leading experts and issued a suicide prevention manual for schools in 1987. “Teenage suicide has risen dramatically in recent years,” it grimly warned, even as unnoticed health statistics showed that California's teen suicide rate had been dropping for 15 years.

By the mid-1990s, L.A.'s teen suicide rate had fallen to its lowest level since 1965. Yet local experts solemnly told Time magazine, reporting on two San Pedro deaths, that “suicide rates are rising steadily for teenagers.” The article invoked the usual hyperbole of “crisis,” “overwhelming,” “impulsive,” and other cliches to demean adolescents. Surveys claiming that “up to 60% of high school students reported having suicidal thoughts” were blared in the press. No one asked: if kids today are killing themselves more, who is hiding the bodies?

The standard line is that modern teenagers (who in fact are much less prone to suicide than are adults) are uniquely self- destructive, particularly with drugs. Yet here are the county coroner's figures: In 1970, 130 L.A. teenagers died from drug overdoses, including suicides, accidents, and everything in between. In 1996, 10. That's a 92% decline.

This trend is all the more surprising because, by all odds, teenage suicide and drug fatality should be rising. Deadlier forms of heroin, cocaine, and speed abound today. Adults in their 30s and 40s (the parents raising today's teenagers) display skyrocketing levels of drug abuse, criminal arrest, household violence, and family breakup. Education and future job opportunities are evaporating for the marginal young. And yet, hundreds fewer are killing themselves.

It is exactly because teenage suicide, like adult suicide, is a terrible tragedy that prevention should incorporate rigorous research, not sensational hype. Yet authorities remain so rigidly wedded to anti-youth prejudices that even the most compelling evidence on life and death matters cannot jar thinking in new directions.

Other than a few L.A. Suicide Prevention Network veterans, most notably psychiatrist Norman Tabachnick, officialdom seems largely resistant to the suggestion that anything could be going right among adolescents. What is truly scary is that today's political, institutional, media, and commercial interests continue to treat young people as little more than an exploitable commodity.

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