Youth suicide: the silent killer - Hawaii News Now - KGMB and KHNL

Youth suicide: the silent killer

Kaniela Kaninau Kaniela Kaninau
Pua Kaninau-Santos Pua Kaninau-Santos
Jordan Gestrich Jordan Gestrich

By Jim Mendoza - bio | email

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - As a young boy, Kaniela Kaninau said he wanted to join the Army, work at a good job, and have a family.

As he grew it all seemed right.

"In our eyes he had everything going for him," said his mother, Pua Kaninau-Santos.

But there was darkness behind the bright light -- warning signs. He was prone to depression and impulsiveness.

"He would recklessly skateboard, I heard from his friends, going down steep hills, weaving in and out of cars. That's really at risk, high at risk behavior," she said.

Then came a Friday in April 2003.

"I asked the question while we were talking to Kani that day, 'So, Kan, you're not thinking about suicide, right?' And I answered the question. I said, 'right.' I didn't give him the opportunity to talk about it," she said.

Kani left home with friends, separated himself, and committed suicide. He was eighteen.

"One moment changed everything for all of us," she said.

Kaninau-Santos said after her son killed himself she wanted to die.

Others who have experienced suicide say the same thing.

Numbers show that for every teenager or pre-teen who commits suicide in Hawaii another seven are hospitalized and 14 are treated in emergency rooms after trying to kill themselves.

Risk factors for suicide are numerous, from psychiatric illness to alcohol abuse to family problems.

At Kaimuki High School the numbers aren't just statistics. Odds are young people under pressure will turn to peers..

"You can't just go straight up, telling them, 'What's wrong with you?' I tried that a lot of times. It failed," Jordan Gestrich said.

He's in the eleventh grade and one of dozens of kids on campus trained to spot signs that could lead to suicide.

"It could be little things like getting F's on things that they're really good at or dressing differently," senior Ashley Nygren-Yee said.

"Sometimes it may be very ambiguous. It may be posed to them as a joke. But peers that are trained, they don't look it as a joke," teacher Kaleo Akim said. "They look at it as an opportunity to talk, to listen, to inspire someone, to encourage them and to get help."

Positive messages are posted all over campus.

Twenty-five public schools in Hawaii offer suicide intervention training for students.

Kaninau-Santos helps with the program. She said it's never too early to start, especially at home.

"I met a dad whose four-year-old son was placed on suicide watch. That really shocked me," she said.

After her son's death, Kaninau-Santos immersed herself in information about suicide prevention.

She worked with the Department of Health and formed an organization that helps families scarred by suicide and families who fear their child is at risk.

"They should eventually ask the question. And the question would be, 'Are you thinking of killing yourself?' or 'Are you thinking of suicide?' It's not harmful to ask the question," she said.

That advice comes from a mother who has seen suicide from the inside out.

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