A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed an alarming increase in the suicide rate of preteen and teenage girls.
The most recent information is from 2004 and showed a 76 percent jump in the suicide rate of girls ages 10-14 from 2003 to 2004. In 2003, 56 girls in that age group committed suicide compared to 94 in 2004.
The CDC report shows suicide rates among all American youth fell 28 percent from 1990 to 2003, but rose 8 percent in 2004. Females aged 10-19 and males aged 15-19 logged the largest increases.
Newton County is not immune to the trend.
"We have not had a teen suicide in Newton County in a while," said Newton County Sheriff's Department Lt. Bill Watterson.
Two young men killed themselves - one in 2004 and one in 2005 - both with shoulder-fired weapons, Watterson said.
Watterson explained the lag in information reported by the CDC about teenage suicide is probably due to lengthy investigations performed by medical examiners and state bureau of investigation units.
In 2004, suicide was the third leading cause of death among Americans ages 10-24. Car accidents and homicide surpassed the 4,599 suicides committed by young people that year.
Although the county has not experienced any teen deaths due to suicide in the past two years, Watterson said deputies respond to attempts everyday.
He said many times when a teen attempts suicide and calls 911, they are seeking attention. Instances occurring in group homes were readily recalled by Watterson.
"I guess in a law enforcement officer's mind, when they do call they are trying to get some help - it's a mental health issue," Watterson said.
Adult suicides and attempts are also on the rise in Newton County according to Watterson.
"It does seem like incidents of suicide are increasing here," Watterson said, "but so is the population, so that's understandable."
Newton County School System Director of Student Services RaNae Sims and Renee Rutledge, associate director of Celebrate Recovery - a faith-based group counseling program offered at Eastridge Community Church - provided some information on what drives teens to suicide.
"From our experience, I think the reasons kids turn to suicide are some of the same reasons they turn to drugs, alcohol, sex, gangs and other negative lifestyles," Rutledge said.
Absent or uninvolved parents, too much time spent unsupervised, no unconditional love and no boundaries or punishment for bad behavior can lead teens down destructive paths according to Rutledge.
"If the opposite of all these things are happening in the teens' lives, they are much more likely to have healthier relationships outside of the home," Rutledge said. "Thus, they're not looking for love in all the wrong places."
Although many teens who commit suicide come from impoverished or abusive backgrounds, no socioeconomic background is invulnerable to it.
"This isn't to say that all kids who commit suicide come from dysfunctional homes, but I think it sure does improve their chances in being faced with that decision," Rutledge said.
Sims agreed teens who commit suicide often were dealing with multiple problems such as trouble at school, problems with friends or family, girlfriend or boyfriend problems and/or involvement with the legal system.
Even arguments with a parent or break-up can cause a teen to ponder thoughts of suicide.
"Crises precipitating suicide in youth sometimes might be events that would be considered minor by adults," Sims said. "For this reason, it is essential that school personnel be vigilant about taking any statements about suicide or self-harm seriously."
Rutledge also supplied information about what teachers and parents should look for in depressed children who may be considering suicide.
"I hate to say it, but a lot of times by the time a teen gets to this place, there have been 101 signs that the parents have not picked up on by this time or they have been ignoring," Rutledge said. "So now, the biggest problem is at hand."
She said teens will often begin to isolate from family and friends, possibly give away prized possessions, speak despondently, or steal medicine or money from parents or friends for the purpose of overdosing or purchasing means for suicide.
The most telling sign parents and teachers should look for according to Rutledge is a sudden, drastic personality change. This could be an easygoing teenager turning violent or a typically aggressive teen becoming peaceful.
"I think so many times their sad lives could have been saved if someone was watching and listening - really hearing from the teen's hearts," Rutledge said.
What to do
Sims explained how the county's teachers are trained to deal with students they suspect are suicidal.
Teachers will refer the student to a school counselor who will determine the next action to take. If the student is determined to be at immediate risk, the system has outlined several things to do.
"First, we do have a mental health clinician assigned to our school system through KidsNet Georgia," Sims said.
The clinician is housed at Sharp Learning Center - the county's alternative school - and is on call to respond to other schools in the event of an emergency.
He performs an initial assessment of the student at the school and makes recommendations based on his findings. Parents are notified in a majority of cases, and offered assistance in obtaining services for the child.
"If the parents cannot be reached or are uncooperative, we refer the family to DFCS (Department of Family and Child Services)," Sims said. "This is done to ensure that the child receives appropriate services."
Rutledge urged parents to call law enforcement if their child directly threatens to commit suicide because they will protect him from himself and take him to the hospital for immediate treatment.
She suggested the entire family receive counseling, not just the teen. Group counseling with peers as well as parents undergoing therapy will help the teenager know she is not alone, according to Rutledge.
Families can seek help through church counseling programs, school counselors and family pediatricians, the Mental Health Department, KidsNet, The Alcove Emergency Youth Shelter or Newton County Community Partnership.
"Neither Teens nor their families were meant to do life alone," Rutledge said, "nor were we meant to do healing and recovery alone."