Several months before the 16-year-old boy committed suicide, he asked his mother what she thought death would be like and if she was afraid of it.
"I thought it was just typical teen-age curiosity," said the mother. "He believed in reincarnation and told me he wanted to come back as a bird or a cat."
The youth, a junior at a Washington area high school, killed himself with a shotgun at the beginning of January, leaving behind a note to his family that said, in part, "I love you all and I always will for eternity," and "I'm sorry to be so selfish with my life."
"Why this happened, we don't know," said the boy's mother. "All we can do is build up a story in our minds and pick up the one we like best. We might one day reach some kind of peace of mind. We know we won't ever find a reason, just theories."
The boy's parents, siblings and friends are among the hundreds in the Washington area who are learning to cope with the often inexplicable deaths of young people who take their own lives.
Suicide today is the third-leading cause of teen-age death in the nation, according to Dr. Calvin Frederick, formerly with the National Institute of Mental Health, behind accidents and homicide. Some are calling it epidemic. The national rate has increased by 200 percent since 1950, with white male teen-agers the group most likely to commit suicide. Although girls make seven to eight times more suicide attempts than boys, boys are four times more likely to succeed because they often use more deadly methods, says Dr. Joseph Novello of the Psychiatric Institute of Washington.
"Often, they don't understand the lethality of what they're doing," said Novello, who is director of child and adolescent services. "Up until the age of 9, children don't understand the concept of the finality of death," he said, adding that children often believe a dead person can come back to life.
Five teen-age boys, three of them white and two black, committed suicide last year in Prince George's County, each one of them taking his life with a gun, according to the Maryland chief medical examin er's office. In Montgomery County last year, one 19-year-old boy, who was white, committed suicide by hanging himself. In addition, county police reported that a second teen-ager committed suicide by drug overdose last year, and another committed suicide by hanging this year. The spokesman said police records did not contain the race or sex of the two victims.
In the previous years, according to state health records, five Prince George's teens in the 10-to-19 age group committed suicide in 1980; 10 in 1979; seven in 1978; and seven in 1977. In Montgomery County, two teens in the same age group took their own lives in 1980; three in 1979; five in 1978; and seven in 1977.
These numbers don't reflect accurately the numbers of suicides, say area experts, who suspect that many teen-age suicides are camouflaged as accidents, such as single-car accidents. And, especially for children under age 10, it is very hard to determine if the motivation behind death was intended to be suicide because many children don't understand the consequences of injuring themselves. Suicide experts also estimate that there are 10 serious suicide attempts for every successful suicide.
Teen-age suicide and depression are "always a concern" among our staff, said Dorothy Harvey, supervisor of guidance for Prince George's County public schools. Harvey said that although the school system has no specific programs on teen-age suicide for staff, the topic is covered during discussions of teen-age depression and family problems. In addition, she said, her department provides administrators and teachers with articles on teen-age suicide.
There are many reasons for teen-age suicide, but often the young victim's survivors never know what particular incident or feeling prompted the final act.
Joel Friedman of the Woodburn Center for Community Mental Health in Fairfax County says that a major cause is a teen-ager's reaction to an overwhelming sense of loss brought on by the death of a parent, friend, or even a pet, or to the loss of self-esteem or self-confidence.
"Teen-agers generally tend to catastrophize events, distort things out of natural proportions," said Friedman. "They don't understand that minor setbacks are temporary and they may think that life is not worth living. There are some teens who literally attempt suicide because they don't do well on tests."
Suicide also may be an expression of anger, Friedman said. "It's their way of getting back at someone. They're saying, 'I'll show you.' "
An attempt to take one's life may also be a form of manipulation, a kind of "psychological blackmail," he said.
"But whether it's just talk, or threats, or gestures or an attempt at suicide, it's a cry for help at some level," said Friedman. "It's one way a child can communicate his hurt and despair when other forms of communication don't work."
Drug abuse may be another sign that a teen-ager is in trouble.
"Many assume that teens who are taking drugs are just bad, but they may be turning to drugs because they're attempting to smother their problems," said Novello, who has been on numerous local TV and radio shows to discuss the problem and who works with many parents of teen-age suicides.
Almost all the experts in the field agreed that communication must be increased between parent and child. One expert claims that 93 percent of those who attempt suicide report lack of communication with parents as a factor.
"Unfortunately, in this culture, society is set up in such a way that it is not 'cool' to talk to your parents," said Ellen Zinner, a Silver Spring resident who teaches death education at Towson State University. "It's your peers who normally know what's going on. After a teen commits suicide, some parents honestly didn't know what was happening."
After such a death occurs, it is important for the survivors--family members, friends, therapists, teachers--to talk about it, said Zinner.
"When a friend or acquaintance in a school commits suicide, it's extremely threatening to other teen-agers, because this option (to deal with problems) becomes more real to them," she said. "Often we have seen epidemics where there's one teen suicide in a school, and then we've seen three or four in the next year in the same school. It's the same thing with divorces--it becomes one way to cope with a problem."
For many parents, the most difficult question to live with after the suicide death of a child is, "Why?"
"It is a mystery to us as to why he took his life," said Marcia Scherago, the mother of a 16-year-old boy who committed suicide 1 1/2 years ago by hanging himself from a tree in the family's back yard in Northern Virginia. "Out of a need to survive, we have come to conclusions. But as to how accurate they are, we don't know. We just keep asking ourselves what could be so strong a force that it would override his natural instincts to live."
Scherago, who has appeared on the Charlie Rose show and on Saturday Magazine to talk about teen-age suicide, says that she talks publicly about her son's death because "I feel like it's not going to go away. No one believes it's possible, no one thinks it could happen to their family. But when they see that it happens to an average American person in the average American family, it hits closer to home."
Families of children who take their own lives are referred to as "suicide victims," said Zinner.
"It's hard enough to lose a child, but there's a stigma attached to the teen-age suicide. Other people wonder, 'What kind of parents were they?' " she said. "Society says that parents are supposed to take care of their children until they are old enough to live on their own. If the child commits suicide, other people often hold the parents responsible."
Parents, siblings, friends, teachers, therapist, neighbors all wonder if they could have done something to prevent the suicide.
"You wonder if you said 'No' one time too many," said one mother. "You feel you failed, you think as parents that you're here to protect them until they grow up, and they don't even make it that far. There were so many things her son didn't have--a wife, children, a job, a car."
Other reactions that many parents try to supress are anger and relief.
"It's difficult to get parents to express anger at the teen suicide," said Zinner. "You (a parent) pity them, feel sorry for them, miss them, but you are afraid to show your anger. One way that other survivors can help is by letting them know it's justified to be angry."
Though most area psychologists agree that suicide "has no socio-economic boundaries," several factors present in the Washington area may contribute to the cause of suicide, said Friedman.
Families are not staying in one place like they used to, Friedman said, meaning that "kids don't have that lifelong friend or neighbor; they don't have the longstanding relationships that they would have had if they lived in one neighborhood for a long period of time."
For instance, according to the Montgomery County planning board, 77 percent of the families in Gaithersburg moved between 1976 and 1981. Drew Dedrick of the planning board said these statistics are typical of most communities in the suburban Washington area.
Friedman also said that, since many families in the Washington suburbs have parents who are both working professionals, "children here are pushed into expectations. This is a high-functioning area and children are expected to do well."
Although the suicide rate for the Maryland suburbs is nearly comparable to the rate for the same years in Northern Virginia, the District of Columbia reports a very low suicide rate--only three in 1980, none in 1979 and one in 1978. An official with the D.C. Department of Human Services says that since most teen suicides are white males, the trend simply hasn't affected the District as much as it has the suburbs.