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PAINFUL LESSONS FOR UTAH FROM A TEENAGE TRAGEDY

Though Utah medical experts launched a new scientific study a few weeks into suicide among teenagers and how to prevent it, that's not enough.

The public also needs to become more alert to the sometimes subtle signs that young people are so seriously upset they may be thinking of hurting themselves - and more aware of how to get help for such troubled youngsters.That much should be clear from this week's grim episode in which 15-year-old Justin Allgood, apparently upset by the traffic deaths of some fellow students, hijacked a school bus after shooting the driver in the leg and then ended his own life with the same .357 Magnum.

This sad saga should focus Utahns' attention on a tragic trend that has been on the rise all over the country but is particularly acute in this state.

Since the 1950s, the teenage suicide rate has tripled. Nationally, suicide now ranks as the third leading cause of death among people ages 15 to 24, trailing only accidents and homicide. In Utah, the rate of suicide among adolescents is the fifth highest in the country, and the experts cite access to guns as the main contributing factor.

Young people who kill themselves are not easily pigeonholed. Self-inflicted deaths occur within all social, ethnic and economic classes. As one report notes, "Adolescents who have all the `right' friends and are academically and athletically successful kill themselves . . . as do youths who come from divided families, have few friends and are failing in school."

But some of the warning signs are known, though one has to look closely. Suicidal people sometimes communicate a subtle or indirect message about their intent. Another signal is preparation for death, which for a young person might entail giving away prized possessions. Sudden changes in mood or behavior that last a long time are also suspect.

Other clues indicating depression are uncommunicativeness, irritability, fatigue, changes in eating and sleeping habits, reckless or abusive behavior, loss of interest in school, friends and other activities, preoccupation with death and lessened fear of death.

This situation indicates the need for community- or school-based suicide prevention programs aimed specifically at young people. Yet Congressional Quarterly reported as recently as 1991 that only about 200 such programs were operating across the country.

Another part of the solution should be apparent from the fact that guns were involved in most of the increase in suicides among teenagers. The number of hangings and other non-firearm suicides have remained virtually unchanged since the 1930s. The national Center for Injury Prevention and Control advises families to either eliminate guns from the home or at least keep them unloaded and locked up, with the ammunition in a separate locked location.

Meanwhile, may the tragic death of Justin Allgood remind Utahns of all ages to become more sensitive to the tender feelings of the young and inexperienced people around them. Seriously depressed youths need to be calmly reassured that disturbed emotions are temporary and problems can eventually be solved - but only as long as life persists.