Alonzo left no note, so it's uncertain why the senior at North High School in Phoenix committed suicide. "I had a class with him and he always seemed happy," says Mike, a North High senior munching fries at a McDonald's near the school. "We talked about suicide in health class, and he said he could never understand why anybody would do that."
"He had everything," adds Eric, another student sitting across the table. "He didn't have any problems." Nevertheless, on March 30 Alonzo, an honor student, connected a hose from his car's tailpipe to the interior, started the engine, and let it run.
Alonzo is one of about 80 youths in Maricopa County and 125 in the state who will kill themselves this year. Arizona's youth suicide rate between 1992 and 1996, the latest five-year batch of figures available from the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHM), is 20.7 deaths per 100,000 people aged 15-24. That is seventh worst in the nation. The national average is 13.1.
Mental health professionals often complain about a lack of money available for treatment programs, due to restraints in government spending and managed-care programs. Arizona traditionally ranks among the frugal or stingy (characterizations vary by political perspective) in per-capita government spending on education and children's health services. Joe Roberson of Grand Canyon Counseling says that in the last six years it has become difficult to get a child into a residential facility unless he is actively trying to kill himself.
But Arizona had high youth suicide rates long before HMOs and the era of lean government. Since 1979 the state has averaged 20.2 suicides per 100,000 for the 15-24 age bracket, roughly its current level. In fact, Arizona's suicide rates are among the highest in the nation for all ages.
In Maricopa County, as elsewhere, youths from all economic classes kill themselves, says Scott Smith of EMPACT, a youth counseling agency. "Upper- and upper-middle-class parents are often hard to work with because they tend to deny that there is even a problem," he says. They don't realize that clothes, stereos, and cars are no substitute for attention.
Another factor: "People really like the image of the Marlboro Man around here," says Al Ells, a Christian family therapist with New Life Clinics. "They prize their independence. It's, 'I'll leave you alone, you leave me alone.'"
"The West is the most individualistic part of an individualistic nation," says Andrew Peyton Thomas, author of Crime and the Sacking of America. All six states with higher rates of youth suicide than Arizona are in the West, with Alaska at the bottom followed by Wyoming, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, and South Dakota. These states have high rates of various other social pathologies as well, including teen pregnancy, divorce, and use of pornography, points out Mr. Thomas. Between 1992 and 1996 Arizona also had the highest rate of deaths due to drug dependency or overdose in the country. According to the NCHM, Arizona's rate was 50 percent higher than California's and double or triple the rates of states like Florida, Michigan, and Illinois.
"Individualism, when taken to an extreme, can lead to alienation from family, community, and God," says Mr. Thomas. "I would argue that alienation from God is at the core of the high suicide rates of today."
"Maricopa County reflects the disintegration of family," adds Mr. Ells, "and the disintegration of biblical values, traditions, church life, and community-the institutions that provide stability. Kids need anchors; they need dos and don'ts; they need to be taught values and eternal truths. If you have nothing but situational ethics, then the emotions of the moment will govern your life."
A youth's progression to suicide often happens like this, explains Mr. Ells: A kid becomes emotionally distant from his parents through divorce, a move, or a busy work schedule. "These kids start looking for a place to fit," he says, "someplace that gives them the value that they don't get at home."
At that point youths are more likely to start experimenting with sex, drugs, alcohol, and sometimes the occult. Their grades start to slip; they become withdrawn; and many become heavily involved in "dark" music. They lack the maturity to handle these things and are overwhelmed when hit with a common teen crisis, like failing a class or getting dumped.
Something similar happened with Anne Johnson, now 16. One night last May her boyfriend, of whom her Christian parents disapproved, informed her over the phone that he was "cheating on me with my best friend," relates Miss Johnson. "I'd been depressed for about three years. He was the one person that was holding me together, and now he'd betrayed me."
She hung up the phone and stood staring at the kitchen walls, alone in the house. "It just seemed like there was no way out, no hope," she recalls. The next morning she swallowed a whole bottle of prescription antihistamines and then headed off to school as usual. A friend noticed that she was dizzy and drowsy and urged her to see the school nurse. She was rushed to the hospital and her stomach was pumped.
Her parents were shocked. "I had to learn how to communicate with my family," says Anne. Her strongest feeling was relief that she could finally talk about things she had bottled up inside her for years: her perfectionism, her feelings of worthlessness, her guilt over her boyfriend.
"Looking back, I lacked perspective," she says. "I think if I had talked with an adult it would have been a lot better." Her father is a Lutheran (AALC) minister. "My parents are really accepting, but they were not sharing parents."
Drugs are often another major factor. Mr. Ells relates how a few years ago a client went into the desert with some friends to binge on speed. After a four-day high he became paranoid that someone was after him and took off on foot. When his friends finally caught him he was bleeding and covered in cactus spikes.
At the emergency room he had to be sedated before doctors could remove the thorns. A few days after the boy left the hospital, says Mr. Ells, he committed suicide.
"Another problem is when a kid starts leading a double life," says Mr. Ells. Outwardly he may be bright and cheerful, but he is lying to cover his involvement in pornography, drugs, or some other shameful thing. "When the double life gets to the point where he can't maintain it, he will be tempted to take his own life." In these cases, suicide often is a total surprise.
The best thing parents can do is stay connected with their teens, says Mr. Ells. "Do things with them. Activity starts the bond. And once you know what they're thinking and feeling, most adults will know what the teen needs to get through the crisis."
Back at the McDonald's in Phoenix, Mike and Eric are still puzzling over Alonzo. "He was straight, man," says Eric. Have Mike or Eric ever thought about suicide? "I think everybody thinks about it once in a while," says Mike.
Just then somebody a few tables away calls out, "Hey, you want to talk to somebody who tried to commit suicide? Talk to him," and points at Mike. "He tried."
Eric looks shocked. "Did you?"
Mike looks down and away. "I don't know," he mumbles. And then it's time to get back to school.