The federal agency investigating possible irregularities in the city's Youth Services Administration was incorrectly identified in Dorothy Gilliam's column yesterday. The General Accounting Office is conducting the investigation.
After eight youths at the D.C. Receiving Home for Children tried to kill themselves this year, including one girl who attempted to hang herself three times in a single night, Patricia Quann, director of the Youth Services Administration, made an appraisal of the events that all but three were "suicide gestures" to get attention rather than serious attempts at suicide.
Quann's insensitive remark, coupled with the fact that the Youth Services Administration is being investigated by the FBI and General Services Administration for irregularities, resulted in her being forced to resign Friday.
But what happened spotlights more than the problems of Quann and her former agency. It is a grim reminder that teen-age suicide is a growing national problem.
Every year, about 5,000 Americans between the ages of 15 and 25 kill themselves, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, while an estimated half-million try and don't succeed. Moreover, the adolescent suicide rate has tripled over the past three decades, outranked only by accidents and homicides as the leading cause of death among our young.
In the black community, teen-age suicide was not a big problem 20 or 30 years ago. Now black youths are killing themselves at a staggering rate.
In the wake of several shocking suicides in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs in the past couple of years, officials have increased their efforts to reduce the teen suicide rate. The Fairfax County school system's suicide prevention program, in which every teacher is trained to spot the early warning signs of suicidal teens, has been praised as a national model. "It's shocking and upsetting that young people don't want to live," said Myra Herbert, head of the Fairfax program. "But the best thing that we can do is create an awareness of the problem."
In the District, there are only two full-time child psychiatrists employed by the city government. One of them, Dr. Frances C. Welsing, director of a community mental health facility called the Paul Robeson School, finds this disturbing. "These suicide attempts are an indication that we have major, serious psychiatric problems affecting children in the District," said Welsing, "and we need a first-rate psychiatric system to help these children and their families."
Young people contemplating suicide, according to Alan Berman, former head of the American Association of Suicidology, "feel that they alone carry the burden of whatever their problem is and suicide seems to be the only solution. They get irrational; they get rigid. They feel bad about themselves."
As experts continue to debate the reasons and warn against easy answers, some blame changes in the family structure and the waning influence of religion for the surge in adolescent suicide. "A belief system was what tided a lot of us over as adolescents," said Dr. Shervent Frazier, director of the National Task Force on Youth Suicide.
In an effort to reduce suicide rates, other psychiatrists point to the need to improve therapy experiences for young people.
Good therapy experiences were apparently not taking place at the Receiving Home for Children, a city-run temporary facility where youths awaiting trial or sentencing are detained, according to a lawsuit the Public Defender Service is filing on behalf of some youths there. Despite a part-time consultant psychiatrist's opinion that many youngsters are chronically depressed (a common sign of suicidal adolescents), the suit alleges that the staff has almost no mental health training, space pressures increase suicidal behavior, and the facility can't provide the mental health services needed by the girls.
There are no easy answers to the epidemic proportions of suicides among teens, but it's clear that incarcerated youngsters are under even more stress than other adolescents, and their pressures are often coupled with complete family disorganization.
There was a time, in the '60s and beyond, when blacks bitterly complained that the American mental health system failed to meet their needs. Now this city's black leadership has the power to make Washington a model in this area.
The time is running out to save our children.