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Fighting teen suicides one call at a time

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It's a disturbing and shocking statistic. Since 1985 Arizona has ranked 9th overall in teen suicide, and it's been in the top ten for years.

Experts say community outreach and education can be key in preventing these tragedies -- but so can a simple phone call.

There's a lifeline that connects teens in trouble to peers who try to help.

For 11 years, 16-year-old Kathy was a competitive swimmer.

"It was six days a week, two to three hours every day," says Kathy. "It's just what my family is all about, it was hard for me because after some time I stopped liking it so much."

The pressure to excel made her feel like she was drowning in her own sadness.

"I just didn't know how to deal with my emotions so as they started to spiral out of control that's really when I started to think about suicide."

What Kathy didn't know then was that help was a phone call away and that one day she would be on the other end.

In January, Kathy became a peer counselor for the Teen Lifeline, a safe, confidential crisis service for kids her age.

"Suicide really is, it's about them not being able to identify resolutions to a problem," says Nikki Kontz, Clinical Director Teen Lifeline.

Kontz started as a volunteer herself 19 years ago when her best friend ended his own life. Kontz, who has a degree in psychology and a masters in social work, says teen suicide is about the psychological pain of feeling trapped -- a means to an end, no matter how extreme -- a way to escape.

Arizona has the 8th highest suicide rate for adolescents. In 2011, 25,000 teens in our state attempted suicide. 125 of them died as a result.

One of them was 16-year-old Shayna McEntire.

Last November she jumped in front of a car driving down Elliot near Burke Street in Gilbert. Her mother Shannon was devastated by the loss.

"I want to hear her voice and I want to hold her and just hug her," says Shannon McEntire.

"But really it's a permanent fix to just a temporary problem."

The peer counselors are not allowed to use their last names. Joe, 18, has been taking calls for more than a year now.

For him it started as a school service project, one that quickly taught him compassion.

"When they first say it I'm really depressed I'm thinking of suicide it's a little bit of an adrenaline rush, like ok, I really need to do something to help them out. But I've had plenty of training and plenty of experiences with it that, I know exactly what I need to get down," says Joe.

Peer counselors here at Teen Lifeline won't give advice. In fact, they're trained not to. What they are trained to do is listen to the caller and help them build healthy coping and problem solving skills.

"The biggest thing when we are looking at suicide prevention really is focusing on other ways of dealing with problems, other ways of dealing with stress and really teaching them to reach out for help. But rarely is suicide about hurting someone else, and really when you are in that deep dark of a place they start thinking that someone will be better off," says Kontz.

Kontz says suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death for young people in Arizona in both rural and urban areas, partly because this is a transient state where people don't have a strong support system, and partly because Arizona doesn't spend as much money per capita on the metal health prevention efforts for our children the way other states do.

Kontz oversees nearly 80 volunteers who train for a period of 72 hours over three months' time.

The teens who call need to talk about anything from a bad day at school, a fight with their parents, to suicide, says Kontz.

"I think it's just a learning experience for myself, and learning that there are other people out there who felt the way I do and feel what other kids feel. It has made me more aware of what the real world is about," says Kathy.

Kathy, who at one time called the Teen Lifeline herself, is there two to three days a week. It's a place to help others she knows are hurting, a way to heal the pain she has felt herself.

Kontz's advice to parents -- pay attention to a change in your child's behavior in any capacity that is significant, and when you have that gut feeling in your stomach that something is not right with your kid.


In Maricopa County: 602-248-TEEN

Outside Maricopa County: 1-800-248-TEEN

Outside Arizona/nationally: 1-877- YOUTHLINE or 1-800-SUICIDE

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