Parents reflect, schools mobilize to curb suicide

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Clive Barry had a wide group of friends and a girlfriend; he committed suicide on Jan. 8. Photo courtesy of Barry family

Less than an hour before she found her son's suicide note, Camilla Barry was laughing with him over lunch.

It was a rare Monday afternoon when Clive Barry, 16, had the day off from Tamalpais High School in Mill Valley, and his mother was home from work to eat and take a nap. Clive talked about how much he respected his father. They made plans to hang out later in the afternoon.

But when Camilla Barry woke up, her son was gone. The note he'd left said he was going to kill himself. An hour later, authorities found his bike at the Golden Gate Bridge. Clive's body still hasn't been found, but authorities presume he jumped to his death Jan. 8.

"I've come to realize I didn't know Clive as well as I thought," Camilla Barry said. "His death was a shock to me. There were so many things he didn't tell me. Not necessarily bad things, just things. He's a teenager, so we thought he was still in our realm. But I don't think we knew Clive."

After a teen suicide, family and friends often are left wondering if there were signs they missed, whether they should have seen it coming. Indeed, there are signs, but they can be subtle and difficult to spot -- especially for parents and friends who don't know what to look for, or who don't want to admit that a child is depressed.

Clinical psychologist and author Madeline Levine, who has been in practice in Marin County for 25 years, said she increasingly sees teens who are stressed, depressed and still flying under the radar because they look good on the outside.

"There is a kind of kid now with this relentless kind of perfection," said Levine, who recently wrote "The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids."

Some teenagers do exhibit classic signs. They start falling behind at school, grow uninterested in activities they used to love, have trouble sleeping, turn to alcohol and drugs. But those signs don't always manifest themselves in time.

"I believe some of the typical signs of depression -- the checklist from the pediatrician -- are not always evident in a child," said Anne Magill, whose daughter Grace, a student at St. Ignatius College Preparatory in San Francisco, took her life in 2005.

Magill said her daughter was gorgeous and spirited and never missed a day of school but started cutting herself in September 2005. A friend recognized her cry for help, and her school and family quickly got mental health professionals involved. Even so, she died a suicide months later.

And many teenagers make a concerted effort to hide their pain.

Camilla Barry found a book in her son's room with a chapter on how to hide feelings and keep secrets.

"I'm mad he didn't let us know what was going on," she said. "But he planned it that way."

In fact, he'd tried to kill himself at age 14 by swallowing rat poison. Afterward, he went to a counselor but hated it -- his mother didn't like the therapist either -- and he stopped going.

Clive's was the third suicide in four years involving current or former students at Tamalpais High. That's not an unusual number for one community. In fact, suicide is the third-leading cause of death among people ages 15 to 24, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Nationwide, the suicide rate among teenagers has fallen since 1990, from 11.1 per 100,000 15- to 19-year-olds to 7.3 per 100,000 in 2003, the most recent year for which consistent national data are available. There were 1,486 teen suicides in 2003.

Teenage boys are more likely than girls to kill themselves, with a rate of 11.6 deaths per 100,000 in 2003, compared with 2.7 for girls, federal statistics show. The suicide rate for people of all ages was 10.8 in 2003.


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