DEWITT — Stunned by several teen suicides in the area this year, about 75 people settled into the Operahouse Theatre here Tuesday night to hear a panel of professionals talk about how future tragedies could be prevented.

Keynote speaker Laura Healles, a counselor at Bridgeview Community Mental Health Center in Clinton, looked over the filled seats and remarked:

“One of every eight people in the United States suffers from depression at least once in their lives. Look around at this crowd and figure how many have been effected,” she said. “There are many reasons why someone might contemplate suicide, and one of the main factors is depression.”

Depression knows no boundaries, she said. It can affect children and both genders. Females are more likely to attempt suicide, usually by overdosing or slitting their wrists.

But males are more likely to be successful at suicide because they use more lethal methods — guns, hanging, automobiles.

The ages 16 to 24 are the highest risk for suicide. In fact, suicide ranks second as the cause of death for teens (auto accidents are first), Healles said. In Iowa, there are an average of two youth suicides per month.

What to do

“I want to make clear that not all people who are depressed are thinking about suicide. And not all suicides are depressed. There are many other causes.

“However, every suspicion of possible suicidal thinking should be taken seriously,” Healles said. The old myth that if a person is talking about suicide it’s just to get attention “is wrong. Very, very wrong. A lot of youths I work with draw pictures about death or write about death. Take everything like that seriously.”

Another panelist, Diane DeMeyer, military family advocacy director at the Rock Island (Ill.) Arsenal, said she found the best place to have a conversation with her son was at the kitchen sink while she was washing dishes or when they were riding in the car.

“No eye contact” seemed to be the key, she said. “Then listen for the underlying feelings.”

“Shut up and listen,” several panelists agreed.

“And try not to overreact,” Healles cautioned. “Every time I hear somebody in my office say they want to harm themselves, my heart stops. I’ve been trained, and it still scares me. I still have to fight myself not to overreact. If you overreact they’re going to stop talking to you.”

An hour of questions

Notices announcing the forum promised written questions would be taken and the panel would remain as long as it took to answer every question.

Here are some of the answers:

n Don’t be afraid to talk about depression or suicide. Say you’ve noticed a change in sleep or eating habits and express your concern. It might stabilize them from making a bad decision.

n If it’s really a bad situation, do not leave the person alone. Offer to arrange for help. If they refuse, be a parent, make an appointment a day or two later. That gives the teen time to adjust to the idea and many times they will show up.

n It’s OK to make the teen angry if you have to to force them to an appointment.

n If you are concerned about your teen and he/she won’t listen to you, share your concern with other people who come in contact with the teen. On the other hand, you, yourself should talk to teens you know if they’re having problems.

n Don’t be afraid to use the word “depression” and explain there is help for it.

n Father John Stack, chaplain of Mercy Medical Center–Clinton, who has special training in suicide prevention, urged parents to watch for “teachable moments” in their teen’s life.

n A group of questions about depression in families and how medication works went to Dr. Prabhakar Pisipati, who said researchers still are studying that possibility. He also said physicians who write prescriptions for medication need to know what else a patient is taking to avoid side effects.

n Chris McCormick-Pries, nurse practitioner at the Vera French Mental Health Center, answered a question about the role of drugs and alcohol in suicide. Autopsies of suicide victims show a high percentage of one or the other involved, even if the person was not normally a user. She also offered a comment about depression.

“Thinking is a habit,” she said, “and it can be changed.”

n After a suicide, don’t be afraid to share memories of that person with his/her family. Brad Knutson, the father of a son who committed suicide, gave that advice. He and several other panelists gave information about the Yellow Ribbon Suicide Prevention program.

Several of the attendees said there is a need for a support group for families dealing with depression or suicide.

n Another panelist was Marybeth Foster, a survivor of depression and suicidal thoughts as a teenager. She said she could not share her problem with her friends, because they had no understanding of it. It was a teacher who helped her find her way through the difficult time, she said.

The forum was sponsored by the DeWitt Observer and the DeWitt Community Hospital Foundation.

The moderator, Dianne Pritchard, told the audience she was glad to be a part of the event because she had suffered from depression most of her life and has been on medication for 20 years.

Also, two of her three children have been hospitalized for similar illnesses, she said. And it was her husband, Bim, who offered the suggestion that there should be support groups for the families of depression patients.