As teen suicides rise, SA father shares painful story in hopes of igniting crucial conversations
Experts and families affected say a communitywide approach will break stigma
SAN ANTONIO – It's a staggering statistic about the most precious people in our society -- children. The 2019 Health of Women and Children report shows that since 2016, teen suicide has increased 28% in Texas.
Numbers are increasing in Bexar County as well, and both experts and families are working to fix that.
"In my personal journey, I've had a very close interaction with suicide. When I was 6 years old, back in 1984, my father took his own life," said Matthew Mattera.
Over the next several decades, Mattera would lose his little brother, two uncles, and a cousin to suicide.
Still, none of that could have prepared him for what happened in 2015.
"My daughter had just gotten home from school. I waved 'hi' at her, she waved 'hi' at me, and that was the last time I'd ever see her on this side of eternity. I went in the master bedroom and I found her. She had taken her own life," Mattera said.
He called his 15-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, smart, kind and creative.
He said in hindsight, he remembers gradual changes that at the time didn't seem severe for a teenager.
"I've done my research. Now, looking at all the litany of literature, every single marker that they say was an indicator — spot on. Her dress was changing. Her demeanor was changing. Her hairstyles were changing. Her music was changing. All of those things in and of themselves, innocuous. But we start putting them together and say, 'Wait a minute. These are symptoms and signs of something a lot deeper,'" he said.
He remembers social media having a big influence on his daughter's mood. He worried she was depressed, but like many parents, he didn't know what to do.
"It's like their face is glued to that screen, and they can't unplug from the negativity they're having at school. It's up to us adults. We set the tone," Mattera said.
"There's a concern, kind of a myth, that if we talk to kids about suicide, we might make them think about suicide. The reality is that kids don't actually start contemplating suicide because someone is talking about it. People commit suicide because they feel hopeless and they're in a lot of pain," said Dr. Geoff Gentry.
Genrtry is the Clinical Services Senior vice president at Clarity Child Guidance Center in San Antonio and is also a member of the Alamo Area Teen Suicide Prevention Coalition.
"It's that fear of stigma that causes parents to delay a lot of times," he said.
That's why he and his colleagues focus so intensely on education and creating an environment where it's acceptable and normal to talk about mental health.
The Bexar County Medical Examiner's office's annual report includes pediatric deaths age 18 and younger. In 2016, there were 16 recorded child suicides in Bexar County. In 2018, there were 19 child suicides.
The report does not state whether those children lived in Bexar County.
Although the increase is lower than the state level, Gentry said there's a lot of work to do.
Mattera has created a blog called Charted Life 365, is writing a book and is speaking up in every way possible, dedicating his life to making sure families know how to pay attention and take action when something is off.
"You can't point the finger at just one thing. We have to zoom the lens out and say, 'OK, what are we doing as leaders? Because as adults we're leadership to these youths,'" he said. "If we can get the faith community, along with community leadership, school leadership, everybody, holistic approach, medical, mental health."
He said it's a coordinated effort that could save precious lives.
"People ask me how many kids do I have," Mattera said. "I always say I have three, because you'll never stop being their dad or their mom. You never do. She left a footprint in our family that's never going to be filled. We have another little baby now, and I look forward to telling him that he has a big sister and how amazing she is."
Both Mattera and Gentry want parents to know it's okay to not have all the answers.
For anyone who thinks their child needs to talk to someone, there is plenty of help locally.
The Clarity Child Guidance Center has a program called First Step in which, with just a week's notice, children can check in with a psychologist to talk about how they're feeling.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness website has a list of suicide warning signs and resources.
The suicide prevention lifeline is 800-273-8255.
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