(Host) Earlier this summer, a notice on the obituary page in the newspaper reported the death of Kyle Stone. The account was one of a vibrant and interesting teenager and it stood out for its openness. At 16, he had taken his own life. As they cope with this tragedy, the Stone family talked to Vermont Public Radio to help others understand teenage suicide. (See below for related links and resources.)
VPR’s John Van Hoesen reports.
(Van Hoesen) Terri Stone rolls the videotape that was played at the memorial service. It shows moment after moment from the joyful and energetic life of her young son.
She talks about the images as they pass on the screen: Kyle at Circus Smirkus camp, suiting up to work with his father on the beehives, riding horseback, playing hockey, and teaching himself to ride a unicycle
(Stone) “He went to opening of Star Wars dressed in full costume and Channel 3 News picked it up. This was prom last year, this was winter ball his freshman year….”
(Van Hoesen) Kyle Stone was a lanky kid with striking eyes and a quick wit. In school, he was well-liked and moved easily in different circles. He liked computers, sailing, Robert Frost, George Carlin, classical music, Calvin and Hobbes, Harry Chapin and the Car Talk guys. He played hockey, but hated the idea that someone had to lose.
His parents, Terri and Doug Stone, moved the family to Vermont from California in 1992, inspired – they say half-seriously – by Bob Newhart. They ended up in a picturesque setting in Grand Isle. They describe themselves as middle America: Doug a semi-conductor engineer and Terri a businesswoman who has also been a stay-at-home mom.
As they try to understand this tragedy in their lives, they know that their youngest son was planning a future. They believe that what happened was the result of teenage impulse, perhaps caused by depression and hard-to-recognize symptoms.
(Doug Stone) “He had a lot of dreams and schemes; he was kind of a thinker. He had all kinds of romantic ideas . I know that when I would hear stories of a teen suicide it was reassuring in my mind to think that. There must have been ways to see it coming, and that I’m a little smarter and a little better parent than everybody else so my kids are safe. And of course I would see it coming, I would talk to my children. The reality of it for me is that it just wasn’t true. I never saw it coming.”
(Van Hoesen) Terri Stone says the topic should be talked about the same way we talk to teenagers about smoking, drugs and sex.
(Terri Stone) “And I want parents to understand that this is something that should be talked about, even if your child is not at risk. Because Kyle – I would have never put Kyle as a child at risk. All children are at risk.”
(Van Hoesen) The Vermont Department of Health says on average, four teenagers between the ages of 15 and 19 take their own lives every year. Barbara Frankowski, a pediatrician at the University of Vermont and Fletcher Allen Health Care, has another statistic. She says suicides for young people 10 to 24 account for 13% of all adolescent deaths. In Vermont, it’s the third leading cause of death for teenagers.
Speaking generally, Frankowski worries about a number of contributing factors when it comes to teenagers and suicide: drugs or alcohol; the breakup of a relationship; fragile self-esteem; and teenagers on the fringe like gay and lesbian kids.
(Frankowski) “We do know that many more teenagers think about suicide or attempt suicide than are actually successful in completing suicide. Probably the numbers are, for every one – I guess if you want to call it ‘successful’ suicide, there’s probably 50 to 100 young people who attempt suicide.”
(Van Hoesen) Frankowski thinks that kids need to understand one thing in particular:
(Frankowski) “Not to think about suicide as something glamorous you know, you’ll get your 15 minutes of fame and people will feel sorry for you, but to look at it as a real tragedy. It’s the end of your life. If young people could step out of their own situation and see it how a family or friend would see it, that might be helpful.”
(Van Hoesen) She says there are ways to strengthen a teenager’s resilience in a complicated world.
(Frankowski) “One is belonging or feeling connected – that’s a really good thing. So kids who are totally disconnected, who don’t feel they belong anyplace – that’s a problem. Another big category is master your competence. Kids who feel they’re good at something, so they have a goal for the future – that’s a really good thing. The third category is generosity or caring – kids who have a sense of reaching out to their friends. Be a good friend. Independence, and an appropriate amount of independence for age is something to be fostered.”
(Van Hoesen) It’s lunchtime and the students are back at the Center for Technolgy in Essex, where Kyle Stone was in the computer program.
Kathy Finck is the director at the center. As she contemplates the din of the cafeteria, she’s also thinking about what’s happened and what the school can do.
(Finck) “The most good we could do is to make sure students know, everyone around someone who has decided to take his or her life, knows that there is a support system here in Vermont. What are your options other than this one.”
(Van Hoesen) Down the hall, one teacher has a special interest in helping. Dave Ginter teaches computer systems technology. He was Kyle Stone’s teacher. There’s one thing he wishes he could get at:
(Ginter) “To just address that disconnect. You’re young, you’re 15, you’re 16, every problem you face in the world is gigantic. The barriers that you build up before yourself when you’re that young, that [adults] know from experience can be overcome, seems insurmountable. That’s part of that disconnect, is that lack of experience that says, ‘I can overcome this problem and come out okay.'”
(Van Hoesen) More than 400 people attended the service. And more than a hundred of them were students. Dave Ginter was asked to speak.
(Ginter) “I spoke directly to the students. And I wanted them to use the emptiness that they felt inside of them at that moment, to use that to understand that this is not the answer to anything. If you could somehow capture that emotion that people feel at the loss of such a promising life, and get young people to understand that this is a very permanent solution to what by all accounts is probably a temporary problem, just work through what you have to do now.”
(Van Hoesen) Ginter says it was the Stones and that straightforward obituary in the newspaper that gave him the opportunity to be honest with the students at the memorial service. And to help them heal. He believes the family’s openness will help them heal, too. Again, Doug and Terri Stone:
(Doug Stone) “There’s comfort in the details. Something happened and I want to know what happened to Kyle. It’s comforting to know that I can maybe grasp what happened.
(Terri Stone) “I don’t have any shame about it. I have a tremendous sense of loss, I have a tremendous emptiness inside of me. And I have regrets, a million of them.”
(Van Hoesen) Terri Stone is looking into starting an organization to promote parental awareness on teenage suicide. It will be called Adolescent Suicide Awareness for Parents: ASAP.
For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Van Hoesen.
Related links and resources:
First Call crisis hotline: (802) 864-7777
American Academy of Pediatrics provides information to pediatricians on warning signs of suicidal and presuicidal behavior.
Vermont Youth Risk Behavior Survey presents data gathered from Vermont youth on a range of topics, including suicide.
Centers for Disease Control provides general information on suicide in all age groups in the United States.
Adolescent and School Health Summary Results for Vermont provides CDC information that is specific to Vermont youth.
State of Vermont Vital Statistics assembles demographic data on caus