Friday, May 16, 2014

For teens, lifeís challenges sometimes prove deadly

After suicide, community looks for answers

Express Staff Writer

Laneís mother, Heather Linhart, and dog Charlie look through Lane Coulthardís room at the familyís house near Bellevue. Linhart said she will try to sell her home, but for now, her deceased sonís room will remain as it was when Lane was alive. Photo by Roland Lane

First in a series of 3
    Raising children can be a bit like trying to corral mercury: elusive, shifting and sometimes risky. In recent months, the question of how we are doing as a community in regards to the task was raised in earnest with the suicide of a Wood River High School student. This series is an attempt to shed light on the challenges of being a teen in the Wood River Valley and how various agencies are working to keep kids healthy and alive. Parents are straddling giving their kids space and freedom and the overwhelming desire every parent has to protect their child from pain, hurt and disappointment. Kids sometimes think adults don’t care or don’t notice, but sometimes the adult just isn’t sure when to step in and when to step back. Future articles in this series will address the issues of drugs and alcohol, social hosting, dating violence and teen pregnancy.

Express graphic by Erik Elison

    Ten minutes. That’s the average time those who have survived an attempted suicide say lapsed between the impulse to end their life and their acting on that impulse.
    Wood River Valley resident Lane Coulthard had eight minutes—480 seconds alone to commit an irreversible act, putting a period on a life that still had so many commas to accumulate.
    The 18-year-old knew when his mother left him to run his younger sister to Hailey from their Bellevue-area home, that when she returned, they would bundle up and head out for a quiet canoe run at Silver Creek Preserve under a waxing crescent moon.
    He didn’t know of his mom’s plans to provide his favorite food, cracked crab, before they headed off on another mother-and-son adventure.
    When his mom found him lying on the snow-covered driveway Jan. 3, she assumed from the scene that he must have slipped and hit his head while he was loading the canoe.
    The shotgun beside his body indicated otherwise.
    The reality met her heart before it reached her head, and when it did, something inside both broke.
     This was Lane, only 18 for a month to the day. The hilarious, smart, athletic kid known around town for his primal sense of responsibility for the feelings of just about everyone, and everything, he encountered.
    For this tenacious young man to hurt himself—and so many others like him—contradicted everything known about him. It is only in mustering the courage and conviction to dig for, and learn from, the unknown, that his family, and his community, might find lasting peace.

An incomprehensible act
    Several instances of self-inflicted violence by valley residents had occurred ahead of the Wood River High School senior’s death. At least eight people had died by their own hand in 2013. There have been four suicides already in 2014, including Lane’s, according to Sher Foster, executive director of the Crisis Hotline.
    On their face, many of the tragedies had plausible triggers—an alcohol or drug problem, a money problem, a domestic problem, a debilitating health issue, or combinations of all of the above.
    After countless tears were shed for the lost, the grieving compassionately supported, life, as it has a way of doing, went on. Yet with Lane’s death, some were starting a tally of what seemed to be inordinate numbers of suicides for one community in the last five years, particularly among people under 25. The faintest cry of “Enough!” was being widely heard, even from trained emergency responders, weary of the losses.
    Eighty-three Idaho school-aged children—16 under the age of 14—have died by their own hands since 2009. Kim Kane, director of the Idaho Lives Project, said in a presentation in Hailey this winter that suicide is the second leading cause of death among youths in the state. One in seven has seriously considered it, one in eight have a plan and one in 14 have attempted it, she said.
    Mountain living, it turns out, can be deadly. That rugged individualism considered an asset is also responsible for untreated mental issues. Idaho, a state that lacks an anti-bullying law, and has some of the most strident anti-gay public policies in the nation, lost two kids in Pocatello weeks apart this year, prompting a lawsuit by the parents, citing a pattern of disregard for the health and safety of gay students.
    In the presence of thwarted belongingness, or perceived burdensomeness, “My death would be worth more than my life, or that lots of problems would be solved,” Kane said. “Making it happen is not rocket science.”
     Add to those conditions limited resources for mental-health support, and mix in easy access to guns, and an irrational moment in time can prove fatal.

In an average of 10 minutes or less
    “It’s a pattern of thinking that gathers into a perfect storm of incredibly uncharacteristic, deluded thinking,” says Dr. Christine Moutier, chief medical officer for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. “We only see what is visible to us. Our minds automatically look to cause and effect, while the real factors can be 100 percent invisible to anyone but the individual.
    “Even they have told us it is not an act against life, or someone, or a forfeit of the future. It is just a desperate attempt to make the current situation stop.”  
    In the pivotal, research-rich book “Night Falls Fast,” Kay Redfield Jamison, an internationally recognized authority on depressive illnesses and their treatment, relentlessly foraged history and current reliable data on suicide to produce a comprehensive look at an issue as multi-faceted as it is regrettable—and, the experts will tell you, preventable.
    Based on what are called psychological autopsies—post-mortem information gathered and analyzed—there are a few constants, but mostly, it is believed to boil down to something as maddeningly simple as this: There is pain, and the person wants it to end. The end, even in the rare instance of a note, defies categorization.
    While there is no one-size-fits-all explanation for suicide—as our community would learn in discovering the circumstances at work in Lane’s life—some things are generally known: At least 90 percent of people who died by suicide were suffering from a mental illness, most often depression, which can cause states of desperation, hopelessness, anxiety or rage. Spring is the peak time overall for suicides, the most frequent method is with a gun, and roughly 80 percent of those who kill themselves are male.
    Jamison sheds some light on that last statistic, writing that “young or adolescent boys, for instance, are much more likely than girls to have experienced a crisis event in the 24 hours prior to suicide.”
    “Particularly common,” she adds, “are breakups, disciplinary or legal crises (such as suspension from school or a pending appearance in juvenile court) and humiliating events such as public failure or rejection.”
    “But psychological pain or stress alone—however great the loss or disappoints, however profound the shame or rejection—is rarely sufficient cause for suicide,” Jamison explains. “Mood disorders, alone, or in combination with alcohol and drug abuse, are by far the most common psychiatric conditions associated with suicide.
    “The fact that most parents are unaware of depression and suicidal thinking in their adolescent children only makes the potential for disaster worse—as does society’s too-frequent dismissal of drug and alcohol use in young people as youthful experimentation and teen angst.”
     “Alcohol and drugs, used to contend with the pain of mental illness, more often worsen it,” Jamison writes. “Substance abuse loads the cylinder with more bullets.”

A community mourns
    When a child is lost, people react, and Lane’s death was among the most polarizing in recent memory. In a community this size, with a reputation as a get-away-from-it-all paradise, the topic has historically been an extra-rocky, less-traveled road for casual conversation. But that began to change with the loss of Lane.
    Indeed, Lane’s suicide buckled the community at its knees. Other deaths, like that of Dr. Bonni Curran while riding a bicycle in downtown Ketchum, had begged the questions of why, and what might be done differently, but it was his death that laser-focused attention on this formidable and unpredictable force—even among those without kids. In spite of the pain, or maybe because of it, it has become increasingly OK to talk about teens, parenting, culpability, social rituals, archaic laws and the outright fear that has stolen into hearts in the wake of so many wakes.
    A candlelight vigil was held by Lane’s peers, a packed church service featured some frank talk from the pulpit about the evil temptations facing our kids, community town halls were held, experts were summoned, panels empaneled, information (and misinformation) circulated, blame was placed—and opinions, fair and otherwise, were uttered and muttered. More tears. Parents tried to get children to pin down their emotions. How were they feeling, really? A few moms and dads gingerly asked for assurances that suicide was not an option. Others were too afraid to say it aloud, as though the mere mention could entice the act.
  There were more questions than answers. But the latter never come without the former.
  As the process of mourning spread through its quarry, the youth reacted in the only ways they knew how, with T-shirt and sticker effigies, video remembrances shared, photos of favorite memories that consumed Lane’s Facebook page.
    Painful reminders of the life lost, such as his prized pickup truck, were reluctantly sold or otherwise removed from view. Physical tributes to “312 Lane Linhart”—the name Lane used in motocross racing, and a play on his birthday and his mother’s maiden name—showed up at his home. A specially crafted skateboard with references to his love of nature was created, a hand-carved bench presented. Gatherings, including a segment of the Sun Valley Film Festival in March, were dedicated to his spirit.
    Some resented the attention. One teenager, whose name was withheld so the thoughts could be shared, reflected in an Idaho Mountain Express letter to the editor on the baffling duality of existence.
    “Teenagers are no longer kids, but they’re not ready to be adults. They’re forced into this crazy, wonderfully horrible world—They’re no longer sheltered from the realities of life,” the teen wrote. “Teenagers experience loss, stress, new love, heartbreaks and growing up. They yearn for the simplicity of being a little kid, and having no responsibilities. …
    “We’re afraid and anxious and trying.”

No logic in an otherwise logical life
    An etched stone at the entrance to Lane’s house informs visitors they have found Star Canyon Chateau, off the north end of Broadford Road. A short but curvy gravel road with paddocks on one side rolls up to the front of the home. There is a pond that can be enjoyed from either the kitchen, the living room or a sunny, screened porch.
    To the yip and squeal of a swirl of small dogs and a curious cat, the single mother to Lane, and his sister Emma, looks weary, but polished on a gloomy Saturday when she ushers a stranger in to recap the life of her oldest child.
    Heather Linhart is a petite woman with a large personality that, when combined with her features, and the cloak of trees shielding her large French chateau-style home from view, hints she is a television reporter, probably on a station in the south, or maybe California. She did, it turns out, study journalism, and now works in advertising sales. She has the gift of analysis and a public relations executive’s mastery of guiding the conversation.
    Because suicide so rarely explains itself, and to come to grips with the horror of it all, survivors eventually resign themselves to a certain truth—their truth—to begin the process of moving through their grief.
    Lane’s death is not an invitation to judgment, and she is not investigating any further.
    “Nothing happened. Nothing. His brain shut off. It told him in that moment his life was over.”
    She does, however, want to emphasize the life he left.
    His room, like him, is unstuffy and masculine, not decorated like much of the rest of the home. It is inordinately tidy for a young person’s space. Though sometimes there would be a pile of dirty clothes, chucked off during one of his many daily gear changes, it pretty much stayed this way. The collared shirts he wore that earned him the nickname of “Gatsby” are immaculately lined up in his closet.
    “Depressed kids live in depressed environments,” Linhart offers to point out the obvious contradiction.  
    On a less cloudy day, it would clearly be a bright room, the sun waking its occupant with its rise, which suited Lane just fine. He greeted each day with wonder and squeezed the essence out of it. He fished most every day, kissing his catch before tenderly releasing it back to the river with an “off you go.” Though he had learned to hunt as a young boy, he had chosen not to.
    David Shaffer, a child psychologist at Columbia University in New York, states in Jamison’s book that his findings are that many male adolescents who kill themselves are not only depressed but aggressive, quick-tempered and impulsive. They also tend to drink heavily, use drugs, and have difficulties in their relationships with others.
    Lane wasn’t that kid. He took calculated risks. He pushed the limits on his motorbike and skis, but he was a cautious driver, trusting his own instincts to guide him in competition, but not leaving the rest of his life to other people’s bad maneuvers.
    His walls are a testament of accomplishments. Ribbons and trophies for various sports and scholastic endeavors, handmade posters from his successful run for student body vice-president.
    “He was going for president, but said he would take the second in command when he found out he had competition,” Linhart says, beaming. “He knew he would win, and he didn’t want to hurt anyone, even though he wanted the position. He was willing to step aside. That’s just how he was.”
    She dismisses any lasting effects of the divorce from Lane’s father, and the subsequent move from Las Vegas to here, saying Lane had made peace with it.
    His mother and sister cheered his every performance and he was there for Emma’s horse shows, the proud big brother. Of late, he had been learning to cope with his sister’s suitors. He was, Linhart says, the man of the house.
    Even if he didn’t excel at everything he tried, he managed to keep it in perspective. Grateful for his gifts, he never hesitated to recruit newbies.
    He taught kids how to ride the pump track at the Community Campus like pros, and was one of 91 of 3,000 chosen to attend Stanford’s summer leadership program. He spearheaded a reseeding effort for the Wood River Land Trust in the wake of last summer’s wildfires.

Lane and his mother canoe together at Silver Creek Preserve, one of their favorite places.
Photo courtesy of Kate Dondero

    “He was a leader, always. Lane had an ability to love people and they loved him back,” his mother recalls. “They loved him when he won, and they loved him when he lost. He knew he was the love of everyone in his life, he just had this charisma. He was funny as hell. No one could make you laugh like that kid.”
    A couch outside his room was often taken by a friend.
    “He looked out for the underdogs; he took in kids who were having trouble at home,” Linhart says. “I would ask him every night, ‘Who’s coming for dinner?’ and he would always smile and say, ‘Make a lot.’”
    Days before his death, he had received a letter inviting him to attend the University of Oregon, where he intended to pursue environmental law.
    One of her favorite photos is one of Lane and his girlfriend framed to show them from their knees to the pavement. During a stroll through a Ketchum Gallery Walk, her heels had become uncomfortable, so her son gave the girl his tennis shoes and carried hers while walking barefoot.
    As college approached, they were technically broken up, but they remained the best of friends.

Uncovering the unknown
    In the weeks before his death, Lane endured a deeply felt loss, the death of his pet parrot.
    “Today I lost my best friend,” he wrote Dec. 19, 2013, on Facebook. “Stevie was the most loving, adorable, talkative guy that was always there in my life, and now he’s gone. Rest in Peace Stevie, Avidazen (sic).”
    While expressing pain through words can lessen the blow, it is hard to interpret the depth of the sensation. But Stevie’s ashes are still in a box on his desk.
    He posted a photo with a shadowy sunrise in January, “First light of the new year.”
    What his mother knows now was that wedged between her son’s living for the moment and seizing a new day was an unparalleled despair.
   “His biggest flaw was that he thought he was invincible,” Linhart says.
    She says she had no illusions that her kid was any different than any other at this age. Though he didn’t drink, she suspected he was smoking marijuana, so she randomly drug-tested him to make sure his head stayed clear for his motocross racing days.
    She bought him condoms when she figured he was having sex. He knew how she felt about drugs and alcohol, the latter for which he had a genetic propensity, she says. She did think experimenting under her roof was better than partying off with friends.
    “I was strict. I didn’t expect him to be perfect, but he was too smart for this.”
    “This” began when a trusted friend reportedly offered Lane a fun new drug at a New Year’s Eve party. Either seduced by the over-the-top nature of the night, or his good sense merely dulled by a little grass, or even some beer, he chose the promise of a stepped-up thrill.
    As Emma reflected later, “It would be like him. Lane lived his life bigger than life. He was going to have the best New Year, as large as he could.”
    Two days later, after a day pushing snow with his buddies, he slinked around his house with a hoodie pulled uncharacteristically low over his head. He didn’t want to talk about it.
    “I’m just really out of it,” was all he would say.
    He texted his girlfriend, “I don’t know where this night is going to take me.” She replied, “Why so low?” but there was no response.
    When his mother noticed he hadn’t started a fire against the evening chill, and asked him to take out the trash, he snapped at her, “What, are you saying, I’m not helpful?” She encouraged him to take a hot bath.
    He was taking out the garbage when her headlights fell across him as she backed out of the driveway to take Emma to Hailey, anticipating the canoeing they’d enjoy when she returned. She gestured a heart with her hands. He did the same.

‘If love could have saved you Lane,
you would have lived forever!’

    Ask Lane’s mother where her parenting went wrong. It didn’t. Ask if he had a mental illness like ADHD or anxiety, depression perhaps? No. No. No. Ask how an A-list kid with a healthy grip on winning and losing, can surrender, and she will say, it was an improbably matched chemistry.
    Rather than a suicide, she sees his death as an overdose.
    Her son, the champion debater, would never have chosen this end.
    She insists that based on her talks with his friends, he had fallen hard from a previous night of “experimenting” and too little sleep. And then, finding his infinite positivity challenged to its core, he slipped into an unconscious state of mind.
    “He couldn’t even articulate it to his friends. He wasn’t reckless. He didn’t want to leave us. Why would he leave? This was a little hiccup in his life. There wasn’t a note because it wasn’t planned. And what could he say to make it make sense?”
    Linhart learned from the Internet that one drug he took was the latest designer drug called 25I, which some researchers believe “robs the brain of serotonin in a brain that isn’t full developed anyway.”
    Similar to LSD in its psychedelic effects, it has caused numerous deaths around the world.
    One drop—ingested by a 21-year-old who had broken his own rule never to take drugs from strangers—killed the young man at New Orleans Voodoo Festival within an hour.
    Other undesired side effects include scrambled communication, paranoia, fear, panic and “unwanted and overwhelming feelings or life-changing spiritual experiences.”
    Also known as the NBomb, 25I is being sold for $10 or less, and can be easily created by anyone with a basic understanding of chemistry. Those lab-savvy kids also know to prepare for the comedown, and stock up the body with vitamins and fluids in anticipation of the dive.
    “They make it through the high with life in the palm of their hand on Friday and by Monday their brain plays this trick on them. This isn’t your mother’s Ecstasy,” Linhart says.
    A therapist she is working with said of these drugs, “It takes you up 20 floors and brings you down 50.”
    Linhart believes that kids around here get their blasé attitude about drugs “because they are living in a little piece of heaven where they believe bad things don’t happen to good kids.”
    Kids here don’t have to see the slums and circumstances their drugs create and come from, thanks to the wealthy economic backdrop, she says.
    “But now, for a little while, they are afraid,” Linhart says. “Fear is a reaction to not having any answers. Maybe the fear will knock down their invincibility. We can’t lock them up, we have to educate them.”
    Still, Linhart said her loss will not make her a crusader.
    “I just want to save one family from our deep sorrow and grief, that’s all. I want the kids and parents in this valley to have a better understanding how deadly these drugs are.”
    “If love could have saved you Lane, you would have lived forever!” his mother wrote on her son’s Facebook page in February.
    “I’m still so mad,” she says this day. “How could you do this to us? I was madly in love with him.” The stranger leaves after a warm embrace, walking away with a sorrow deepened by knowing more about the young man, and understanding far less.

Preventative measures
    The Blaine County Community Drug Coalition, which works to prevent teens from substance abuse, is well aware of drugs like 25I and the also-popular Molly. They’re banking on the “information is power” philosophy to save lives in the future.
    Executive Director Michael David explains that rather than making drugs taboo, their approach is to demystify them and accept why kids are drawn to them. Through peer support, the organization aims to capitalize on teen’s aggressively independent desires divided by their connection to home and adults, to guide them to decisions to rule their own health to persevere.
    “Death wakes us up, but it doesn’t address all those for whom drugs or addiction is causing problems,” David says. “Why do twice as many Blaine County high-schoolers think about using substances as the rest of the state? We have all these rookies using alcohol and drugs. That’s Russian Roulette.”
    David says substance use on a brain under 25 causes brain damage.
    “We care so much about concussions from sports,” he notes, “but we have to have a lower tolerance for letting children do irreparable damage to their lives as rites of passage.”
    Nancy Kneeland, Lane’s aunt, is one of the original founders of the Drug Coalition, and a trained drug and alcohol counselor with an emphasis on “teen angels.”
    “The beauty of drugs and alcohol is that they allow you to throw reason and judgment away,” she says. “It’s the first thing to go.”
    With the loss of serotonin come feelings of depression. Compounding the complexity, many kids have nowhere to turn with their feelings, because if they do, they are admitting illegal activity.
    And because they rely on their peers, groups like the Drug Coalition and Idaho Lives are loading students and teachers up on information that they can use as daily field ambassadors.
    “We do a pretty good job of getting kids ready to take it to the next level academically,” David says. “But we don’t prepare them socially. We don’t give them the information they so badly need to make good choices.”

Looking forward
    The body blow assumed by so many after Lane’s death will leave bruises that fade, but also scars that serve as reminders that challenges persist. These problems have rocked communities across the globe and now, it is our turn.
    Thankfully, there has been an upswing in interest in drug education and suicide prevention—which experts say is possible—and introspection, which they likewise say is healthy for a community recovering from such a blow.
    The Idaho Lives Project has invested in a pilot program currently at Silver Creek High School receiving $3,000 to implement Sources of Strength, an evidence-based suicide prevention program that utilizes the power of peer social networks to change unhealthy norms and culture to ultimately prevent suicide, bullying and substance abuse.
    Suicide, it turns out, is still considered rare and, it doesn’t have to be a forgone conclusion for any kid—depressed, being bullied, struggling with gender identity, or an addiction, a broken heart or seemingly without hope. For every one completed act of suicide, many more have been intervened on, preempted by caring observers. Those 10 fateful minutes didn’t become fatal.
    Researchers are saying that kids need to realize that despair and loneliness and anger, while painful, are changeable. Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary condition.
    Ambassadors among peers are essential, they say. The more who reflect that suicide is not an option, the less frequently it can be.
     One suicide survivor said that a smile from a stranger was all that it took to prevent suicide that day. And research has proven that a failed attempt buys about five weeks of repair time. Long enough for medication and therapy and hope to take root.
     Intentions that start off in one direction can be thwarted simply by removing the means—guns, especially—when it comes to young people.
    Linhart is heartened by the news that one of her son’s buddies chose to stop using drugs and get into treatment. She hopes the ripple effect of uncovering the unique circumstances that led to his suicide has some community-altering rings as it widens.
    “Lane made a mistake in his life. He made 150,000 good choices in his life, and on one given night with one given choice he made a choice that took his life,” she says. “He didn’t want that. If losing Lane is not enough of a life lesson, I can’t save them.”   

Suicide myths

  • People who take their own life are selfish, cowards, weak or are just looking for attention. The fact is more than 90 percent of people who take their own life have at least one and often more than one treatable mental illness such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and/or alcohol and substance abuse. With better recognition and treatment many suicides can be prevented.
  • While bullying and suicide can be linked, it is not a clear-cut connection that ignores key underlying mental-health issues such as depression and anxiety.
  • Talking about suicide plants the idea. In fact, speaking openly about the feelings surrounding the subject and having a chance to provide alternatives has shown to prevent or delay attempts.
  • Talk therapy and/or medications don’t work. One of the best ways to prevent suicide is by getting treatment for mental illnesses such as depression, bipolar illness and/or substance abuse and learning ways to solve problems. Finding the best treatment can take some time, and the right treatment can greatly reduce risk of suicide.

Source: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Some suicide warning signs

  • Talking about wanting to die or kill oneself.
  • Looking for ways to do so, like searching for a gun online.
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live.
  • Talking about feeling trapped or in pain.
  • Talking about being a burden.
  • Increasing use of alcohol or drugs.
  • Acting anxious or agitated, behaving recklessly.
  • Feeling withdrawn or isolated.
  • Suddenly happier, calmer.
  • Loss of interest in things one cares about.
  • Sleeping, a lot or too little, mood swings.

Source: Idaho Suicide Prevention Hotline.

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