Thursday, Feb. 7, 2008

A year later, father still searching for answers in daughter’s suicide

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Looking back, there are some things that Troy Crites would have done differently.

On Feb. 2, 2007, the bodies of his 18-year-old daughter, Rachel Crites, and her friend, 16-year-old Rachel Smith, were found in Crites’ car in Loudoun County, Va. The two teens had been missing for several weeks. They had died of self-inflicted carbon monoxide poisoning.

Rachel Crites, a recent graduate of Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville, was an upbeat and bubbly girl, Troy Crites said — far from what he imagined as the profile of a depressed teen who might commit suicide. A year later, he now has a window into his daughter’s hidden world through her diaries, in which she detailed thoughts of depression and suicide. Looking back, Crites said he would have read those diaries while his daughter was still alive.

‘‘Rachel was a sound sleeper,” Crites said following a closed session at the Universities of Shady Grove on Thursday when he spoke to mental health professionals. ‘‘I could have gone into her room at night and gone through her purse.”

Crites has now made it his mission to educate families and professionals about teen suicide, what he considers to be a taboo subject for many. Crites spoke Thursday to an audience of more than 100 mental health professionals who work daily with troubled youth, hoping to lend a personal voice to the session, which aimed to educate clinicians about dealing with depressed teens.

His lesson was one of the need for more parental intervention when it comes to depressed teens, more communication between schools and mental health professionals, and a need to break the stigma that keeps many teens and parents from speaking openly about the issue.

‘‘Partly, I’m to blame for not understanding the true risk Rachel was at,” Crites said. ‘‘That’s 20⁄20 hindsight I will live with for the rest of my life.”

According to psychological professionals who spoke at the session, the number of teens who wrestle with depression and thoughts of suicide is an increasingly epidemic problem. From 2000 to 2004, eight people between the ages of 13 and 22 took their own lives in the county, according to the Montgomery County Crisis Center.

Pressure to succeed may be a factor for depressed teens in the county, said Steven Israel, a psychiatrist who spoke at the session. ‘‘People’s lives are busy and driven by success and need for reward,” Israel said after Thursday’s session.

Parents affected by a social stigma surrounding suicide may not always accept that their son or daughter may need treatment, psychologists said. Denial may be a factor for parents who are reluctant to cross privacy lines when they suspect their child may have a problem, said Joan Goodman, a social worker who spoke at the event and after it.

‘‘When it comes to safety, parents have to take control,” said Sako Maki, president of Potomac Ridge Behavioral Health and Adventist HealthCare’s Behavioral Health Services, speaking to reporters after the session. Maki’s group hosted the Thursday session. ‘‘The privacy issue is null and void,” she said.

Crites said that his daughter struggled with depression and self-mutilation, but was being treated through medication and therapy and appeared to be recovering before her suicide. However, he said that she appeared disconnected, and was deeply affected by the absence of her mother, who lived abroad. Looking back, Crites said these may have been warning signs.

While self-mutilation may not indicate suicidal tendencies, it often means that teens are having difficulty coping. ‘‘They can’t contain their emotions,” Goodman said. ‘‘They’re spilling all over the place.”

Not all the puzzle pieces of Crites’ suicide fit together so easily. Crites appeared to be planning for future events — she had purchased books for her next semester at college, made an appointment for her therapist for the following week, and bought shampoo and conditioner prior to her suicide.

Impulsivity can often be a factor for teens who take their own lives, Goodman said.

Depressed teens can often be treated successfully through a combination of medication, group and individual therapy, but parents should intervene immediately if they suspect a problem, she said.

‘‘This is a very treatable population, even if they might fight you every step of the way,” Goodman said.

For help

If you suspect your child may be depressed orsuicidal, call the Montgomery County Crisis Center at 240-777-4000. The center can set up a consultation with a therapist or respond with a mobile crisis unit. If you suspect a suicide attempt is in progress,dial 911.