ON April 8 it will be 10 years since Nirvana’s lead singer, Seattle rock-icon Kurt Cobain, was found dead in his home, killed days earlier by a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Although the months following his death were filled with a million whys, the music star’s cousin, Beverly Cobain, says many signs and songs pointed to suicide.
In the years since his death, Beverly Cobain, a registered psychiatric nurse, has struggled to keep open the dialogue started by the high-profile suicide.
Now, she is bringing that struggle to Costa Rica.
COBAIN is the author of “When Nothing Matters Anymore, a Survival Guide for Depressed Teens” and also is an international speaker on the subject of
Since moving to Costa Rica two years ago to “escape the clouds of Seattle,” Cobain has been learning Spanish with the goal of helping Costa Rican youth combat depression and suicidal tendencies, which have increased in recent years.
In 2002, 102 people between the ages of 10 and 25 – the age generally considered “teen” by suicide experts – committed suicide in Costa Rica, according to the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ).
This age bracket accounts for approximately 37% of the total number of suicides in Costa Rica, which rose from 133 per year in 1991 to 279 in 2002.
“These are the statistics the OIJ knows, but there are at least twice as many, because parents hide it when it happens, out of denial and fear of the stigma,” said Julia Woodbridge, founder of the San Josébased Rescuing Lives Foundation, a teen suicide-prevention organization recently contacted by Cobain.
Dissolving this stigma is one step toward reducing the teenage-suicide rate, Cobain said.
WHILE discussion of depression and suicide has increased in the last ten years in the United States, such openness about the topic is in its infancy in Costa Rica, according to Woodbridge.
In 2002, depression accounted for only 285 calls – about 2.1% the total – to a hotline established by the Costa Rican Social Security System (Caja) to help teens in crisis.
However, a study by Dr. Mauricio Campos of 69 high-school students at Liceo de Aserrí, south of San José in the town of Aserrí, showed that 22% of students were at risk of suicide, according to an emotional test created by the Caja.
School authorities often fear that talking about suicide prevention will put the idea of suicide into students’ heads, according to Cobain. The stigma against the topic continues even after the act is committed.
“PEOPLE don’t want to talk about it because of the guilt they feel,” said Woodbridge, whose son shot himself 17 years ago when he was 14 years old.
“The guilt is so strong you cannot handle it. Everybody – classmates, teachers, neighbors, and of course the family – asks themselves, how could this have happened? How could I have not helped? How could I have not realized?” she told The Tico Times.
While initiating dialogue – and helping parents, students and teachers recognize the signs of teenage depression – is one form of combating suicide, the roots of the problem may run even deeper.
Despite increased attention, teenage suicide rates continue to rise in the United States, according to Cobain.
“We still haven’t found anything to change the numbers,” she said.
THE problem may be the product of a situation beyond depression, according to Luis González, a psychologist with Costa Rican organization Focus on the Family.
“With more development in a country comes more competition,” he said. “The more competitive people are, the more absorbed they are with work and school, and the less time they have for family sharing and enjoying the things that give meaning to life. When you think that what is important in life is work or school, and then you get fired or do bad in school, you feel like there is no reason left to live, because you have lost your goals.”
Loss is one of the biggest reasons for suicide and depression, in many senses of the word, Cobain said: loss of a loved one, loss of a job, loss of health.
Cobain said she is working on a new book to understand the suicidal mind.
Through interviews with people who have attempted suicide, she is studying how a person arrives at the decision, and why friends and family may not notice that person is suicidal.
“WHEN Nothing Matters Anymore” explains the chemical aspects of the depressed mind. Many people who suffer from depression have a deficit in the chemicals serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine.
These chemicals serve to bridge the synapses between nerve cells during the transmission of messages in the central nervous system. When somebody is deficient in these neurotransmitter chemicals, messages are not transmitted properly throughout the body, leading to depression, according to the book.
Some ties also exist between mental illnesses, such as bipolar disorder, and suicide.
However, Woodbridge is careful to point out that only 12% of suicides in Costa Rica in 2002 were attributed to mental illnesses, according to the OIJ.
Problems with relationships accounted for 23% of all suicides and family problems counted for another 12%.
BIPOLAR disorder probably played an important role in the death of Kurt Cobain, his cousin said. Kurt was bipolar, and even if he was using the treatment drug lithium – the title of one of his songs – the use of other drugs and alcohol would have counteracted any treatment benefits, she said.
This, coupled with an interest in guns and a family history of suicide – two of Kurt’s uncles shot themselves, one simultaneously in the head and heart – created an equation in which suicide was all too probable, Cobain said.
“He was like a poster child for suicide,” she said
Though the list of signs of depression has been made before, it cannot be taken lightly, according to Cobain. It includes isolation, change of diet, poor hygiene, self-blame and doubt, aggression, drug and alcohol abuse, problems at school and sensitivity to rejection and failure.
“There is no vaccine, the only vaccine is prevention, intervention is much more difficult,” Woodbridge said.
This prevention should begin with helping kids find value and self-esteem in life outside of school or work, González said.
IF someone does suggest thoughts of suicide, do not immediately tell him or her how beautiful life is, he added. The best thing to do is listen to what that person has to say.
“You have to hear the problems and how that person deals with those problems first,” he said.
And if a friend or family member does not say they are considering suicide, but the signs are there, the best thing to do is ask up front, Cobain said.
“You need to go right up to them and ask, ‘Are you thinking of killing yourself?’” she said. “You have to use the words. If you beat around the bush, they will say they are okay.
“A lot of times people kill themselves in anger because nobody notices they are hurting,” she added.
How to Get Help
HELP for teens suffering from depression or at risk of suicide can be found at the following organizations:
The Cuenta Conmigo (Spanish) hotline for teens in crisis, sponsored by the Social Security System’s Integral Attention Program for Adolescence, can be reached from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. by dialing 800-22-44-911. Focus on the Family can be reached at 245-2222.
The Rescuing Lives Foundation can be reached at 283-3238. Beverly Cobain can be contacted through her Web site: www.LivingMatters.com