Features

Death in the desert

National | Greater Phoenix has great weather, a booming economy, and one of the highest youth suicide rates in America

Issue: "Life of a warrior," June 12, 1999

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.

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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."

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