Preventing adolescent suicide is his life’s passion

By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald Commentary

The ink was barely dry on Dr. David Capuzzi’s doctorate in counseling at Florida State University when, as a 25-year-old “beginning counselor,” he met a 19-year-old freshman who was struggling mightily with issues of low self-esteem.

There were a few early signs of the student’s struggle, Capuzzi recalls. He was an only child born to a couple in their late 40s, so as he grew up, his natural peer group consisted of the older friends of his parents.

The student didn’t even start college until January after his high school graduation because he was afraid and ill-equipped to mix with students of his own age.

“He had learned everything to do to appeal to an older adult but not a whole lot about how to relate to his peers,” Capuzzi said.

Capuzzi counseled the young man regularly for about three years, but their appointments became less frequent. When Capuzzi learned that the young man had committed suicide, he became angry.

“I was, of course, traumatized by the loss,” Capuzzi said. “First of all, I blamed myself that, oh, I should have known these things. Then I blamed the graduate faculty from whom I had received my master’s and doctorate because it was never really addressed in graduate school. And then I thought, ‘This isn’t doing me any good. I need to learn about this.’”

His personal inability to ward off an isolated student’s death led Capuzzi to devote most of his professional life to trying to diagnose and prevent suicide among adolescents and young adults.

With suicide now considered the second-leading cause of death (next to accidents) among adolescents in the U.S., Capuzzi has traveled the world to help school counselors, administrators, social workers and parents spot red flags and risk factors that might lead to a teenager taking his or her own life.

Capuzzi was at the University of Holy Cross this week to do just that with more than 100 counselors and social workers, many from schools in the Archdiocese of New Orleans who were encouraged by Archbishop Gregory Aymond to attend.

Capuzzi always starts by identifying what he calls the risk factors that can lead to teen suicide.

“I talk about myths, because I don’t want parents or clinicians to buy into the myths, because if you do, you’re going to make mistakes,” he said.

There are some common risk factors: the suicide of a family member or close friend; low self-esteem; alcohol or drug use; the breakup of a relationship and the ensuing social isolation; living in a violent community; living in a house where there are guns, especially if they are not properly monitored by adults; depression; and a history of sexual, physical or emotional abuse.

The suicide rate is higher among males, and Native Americans are the ethnic group most at risk, while Latino, African-American and Asian groups have a lower risk.

Also, people living in the harsh geographic wilderness of the Western states, where the nearest movie theater or restaurant might be hundreds of miles away, have the highest rate of suicide, while those living in the Southeast have the lowest.

There are no correlations, Capuzzi said, between suicide rates and socioeconomic status, family status (two-parent or single-parent families) or levels of education.

“It cuts across all lines,” he said.

One adolescent every 90 seconds attempts suicide, and one adolescent dies from suicide every 90 minutes in the U.S., he said. Although there are believed to be 5,000 to 6,000 suicides among adolescents every year, Capuzzi feels the actual figures are much higher.

“We don’t have good statistics because a lot of time, families try to cover up the cause of death if they can,” Capuzzi said. “A lot of suicides are listed as accidents. Sometimes a suicide note is never shared with the police or anyone else because people are embarrassed, and they’re afraid it will look bad for the family.”

Among the good news is that teenagers who practice religion within their family have a lower rate of suicide.

“Most religions in the world promote the idea of life and learning how to problem solve and how it is the wrong thing to do to take your own life,” Capuzzi said. “Religion and spiritual beliefs give people hope. A counselor should never tamper with that. There is a higher power to turn to.”

Parents or teachers who think something might be wrong should seek to involve the teenager in counseling.

“Get your child to a counselor and keep him in counseling for as long as possible,” Capuzzi said. “A lot of schools now have a policy that if a child makes an attempt, they will not let the child back in school unless the family documents it has the child in counseling. If you’re not trained as a mental health counselor or a school counselor, don’t try to do any counseling. Just try to identify who you think is at risk and get that person professional help.”

For more information on adolescent suicide, go to Capuzzi can be reached at He is willing to make training presentations to schools or school districts. There is still time to register for the Nov. 8 workshop at the University of Holy Cross, which begins at 9 a.m. Click here for details:

Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at

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