Though several months have passed since Garrett Mentzer took his own life, his mother still has flashbacks of the day her son hanged himself at age 17.

“That image will always be in my mind,” recalled Christine Ray of Simi Valley, whose son committed suicide on Oct. 12. “I keep waking up thinking, damn — this is not a bad dream.”

A student at Simi Valley High School, Garrett — who had a twin sister named Madison — had a lot of friends, got decent grades, loved playing the guitar and was known as a really good skateboarder, his mom said.

“Everybody liked him,” said Ray, adding that she and her son had a very close relationship. “He was always going places and doing things. He was pretty good at everything he tried to do.”

Looking back, it’s difficult to pinpoint why, exactly, Garrett took his own life.

“He was threatening (to commit suicide) to his girlfriend about a month before because they had just broken up, but she thought he was just threatening,” Ray remembered. “He was telling me he didn’t want to live his life without her.”

The pain left behind

“No matter how much you think you are close to your kids, they still have their secrets,” Ray said. “This could happen to anyone and people don’t realize that.”

She later discovered that her son researched how to commit suicide on social media, and he took pictures of the rope hanging in his closet and posted them on Instagram and Snapchat. On the day of his death, when she found him and called 9-1-1, she was instructed to cut him down.

“Teenagers that do something like this are in a lot of pain and obviously suffering from some sort of depression,” Ray said. “It’s a taboo subject until someone is affected directly. Everybody wants to pretend that ‘It’s never going to happen to me.’ Two weeks before Garrett committed suicide, he said, ‘I could never do that to my mom’ — but he did.”

Although she’s devastated over the death of her son, Ray is attempting to move forward through public speaking events with the hope of preventing more youth suicides in the future by promoting open and honest dialogue.

Most recently, on May 10, she participated in a panel discussion at Santa Susana High School in Simi Valley during an event entitled “Talk Saves Lives: A Brief Introduction to Suicide Prevention.”

“My message, especially to the kids, is letting them know what this does to the people that are left behind,” Ray said. “No matter what kind of pain Garrett was in, it couldn’t compare to the pain he left behind.”

Her message to teens suffering from depression: “Things change by the hour, things change the next day — everything gets better, then it will get worse again, and then it will get better. It’s just life.”

Her message to those who witness suicidal tendencies in youths: “They should say something to a counselor; say something to anybody — a close friend. And the people they tell need to just listen and take things more seriously.”

Garrett’s ex-girlfriend is still suffering in the aftermath.

“She’s having such a hard time and I totally understand. She still comes over,” Ray said. “I’ve tried to get her into counseling, but there are no support groups in this area for that specific type of counseling.”

As far as Garrett’s twin sister is concerned, “She is not dealing at all. She hasn’t acknowledged it,” Ray said.

Today, Ray operates on the idea that “I can’t let his death go in vain.”

She is particularly concerned about posts on Garrett’s social media pages.

“They say, ‘I’ll see you in a year, Garrett,’ ” Ray said. “The only thing I can do is tell their parents, and hopefully they’ll get some help.”

Suicide rates on the rise

Suicide rates for Ventura County youths are on the rise, with local experts and agencies citing several possible reasons, including bullying and social media — as well as school pressure to achieve a higher standard of education.

“It’s rising from previous years,” said Pat Montoya, president of a drug awareness group called Not One More, which offers programs that address the underlying issues associated with substance use disorder and the underlying issues behind self-medicating.

Joelle Vessels (far left) Director of Youth and Mental Health Services, meets with youth outreach team members to prepare them to engage youth at an upcoming community event. Monica Vergara, Street Outreach Coordinator; Ramon Reyes , Outreach Volunteer from St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo ; Diane Melendez, Street Outreach Specialist

Not One More, based in Simi Valley, brings in different speakers associated within these parameters, or directions to resources, and makes presentations to middle schools, high schools, colleges and social youth groups.

In addition to bullies, the Internet age and school pressures, other potential reasons for the rise, Montoya said, include drug availability prescribed through doctors or street drugs to self-medicate.

“I also believe we are laying more pressures on our adolescents to grow up with more adult responsibilities,” Montoya said.

As far as the most recent statistics on the suicide rates for youths is concerned, Joelle Vessels, director of mental health and youth services at Interface Children and Family Services, noted data from sources including Kidsdata.org and Health Matters in Ventura County. These sources look at statistics from California Department of Public Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Child Trends Databank.

Kidsdata.org, from 2011 to 2013, indicates “completed suicide” is at 8.1 per 100,000 in Ventura County.

“The California rate is 7.7, so we’re higher than the state rate,” Vessels said.

“What’s also interesting is a report on the number of emergency room visits of youth in Ventura County as a result of suicide attempt or intentional self-inflicted injury,” Vessels noted. “The data on California Department of Public Health indicates that from 2009 to 2011, the rate was under 20 per 100,000, compared to just above 40 per 100,000 in 2013-2015.”

Suicide attempts and completed suicide

While Vessels is not a statistician, “The general trend appears to be that suicide attempts and completed suicide has risen from 2009 to 2015,” she said. “Why is the debated question — but the good news is that treatment for depression has successful outcomes. Depression can be positively affected by cognitive behavioral therapy and medication management.”

Recent mass shootings and today’s political climate might also be among the factors affecting local suicide rates with youths.

Montoya believes that school shootings are associated with mental illnesses not being addressed, “or the medications that are being used to address mental illness in most cases, and of course shootings in the schools have produced a paranoia and awareness to protect themselves, which produces the need to self-medicate or self-harm.”

“The political climate has had an effect on our youth as we lay and expect more responsibilities on our youth politically and socially, and that their brains are not able to process at their early ages,” Montoya said, further noting that the average rational thinking part of a teen’s brain is not fully developed until age 25.

‘The social and political environment affects us all’

As a clinician, Vessels speaks from a practice viewpoint.

“The social and political environment affects us all, youth included,” Vessels said. “There have been a number of articles and studies over the years to study the impact of televised images and social media. As a therapist, if a youth is depressed, we encourage them and the family to keep it at a minimum, and to practice strategies to improve a sense of well-being.”

Social media has a big play into this, “as we see more and more social-media bullying and information that is absorbed into the youth brain,” Montoya said. “Social media and Internet sites are geared to our youth, and are affecting our youth as they absorb this information.”

“The pressures we are expecting and placing on our youth can’t be comprehended at an earlier age,” he said, “therefore causing our youth into depression or selfharming and to either self-medicate, which also leads to depression — or worse, suicide.”

Moving forward

Now the big question is: How can the community help these youths in Ventura County?

“Treatment is proven to be effective,” Vessels emphasized, adding that still, the No. 1 treatment strategy is cognitive behavioral therapy and medication management.

Additionally, community education on suicide warning signs is a component of the strategy in Ventura County, said Vessels, who noted that the Ventura County Behavioral Health website, Wellness Everyday, offers tips on what to do when engaging a youth who is feeling suicidal.

The Wellness Everyday website noted that according to the most recent California Healthy Kids Survey, 24 percent of seventh graders, 29 percent of ninth graders, and 33 percent of 11th graders felt “sad and hopeless” for two weeks or more during the past year. Additionally, 16 percent of ninth graders and 17 percent of 11th graders seriously considered suicide during the past year.

According to Wellness Everyday, many suicidal youths can act in ways that include a preoccupation with death, suicidal threats made directly or indirectly, notes and plans surrounding suicide, previous suicidal behavior, and making final arrangements such as writing a will or giving away prized possessions. Teens with suicidal tendencies might also exhibit changes in appearance.

Vessels noted that Ventura County Behavioral Health works with local schools to implement SafeTalk, a program designed to train confidential peer counselors.

“Continuing to provide community education and resources is key,” she said, “ensuring the community knows what the resources are and how to access them, ensuring services are available and easily accessible.”

Local training for suicide prevention

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention hopes to advance educational effectiveness through connecting the community with Youth Mental Health First Aid made possible for free by a grant from the city of Simi Valley.
Youth Mental Health First Aid is designed to teach parents, family members, caregivers, teachers, school staff, neighbors, health and human services workers, and other citizens how to help a youth – age 12 to 18 – who is experiencing a mental health or addictions challenge or is in crisis. Participants must be 18 years old or older.
An upcoming training on June 12 and 13 from 5 to 9:30 p.m. will be hosted by Rose Family Funeral Home and Cremation in Simi Valley. Both sessions are required to receive a certification accredited by the National Council for Behavioral Health and is valid for three years after completion.

Participants will learn to support youth who may be developing a mental health disorder. Warning signs and symptoms, risk factors and protective factors will be discussed. Participants learn how to approach a youth, what to say, and what to do using a five-step action plan, ALGEE:

● Assess for risk of suicide or harm

● Listen non-judgmentally

● Give reassurance and information

● Encourage appropriate professional help

● Encourage self-help and other support strategies

Dinner will be provided and space is limited. Preregistration is required. To register, email mecollins@voice4families.com or register online at Youth Mental Health First Aid Registration

‘We need more mental awareness and treatment’

From Montoya’s perspective, “I think we need more mental awareness and treatment for our youth without all of the pharmaceutical aspects in most cases.”

Additionally, Montoya believes that we need to have more awareness in schools with more resource counselors on campuses.

“We need to parent, including monitoring our children’s social-media immersions, create positive thinking with less pressures to achieve a college degree or sports or academic scholarship at an early age — let kids be kids, they’ll grow up soon enough,” he said.

“We need to take the children out of the room and get outdoors play and not let their smart phones raise them, or game consoles,” Montoya further emphasized. “Quit pharmaceutically fixing and get to the root causes of depression and suicide in most cases.”

Montoya added that during his last six years with Not One More, he has seen an uptick in adolescent substance use disorders, “as our youth are self-medicating from depression and social pressures.”

“Drugs are easy to acquire through either their parents’ medicine cabinets or street-level drugs,” he said. “Treat people how you want to be treated with love and respect, and say not one more overdose, not one more lost spirit, not one more grieving parent.”

Local Resources

  • Teen Line: Text “TEEN” to 839863 or call 1-800-TLC-TEEN
  • California Youth Crisis Line: 1-800-843-5200 or youthcrisisline.org
  • The Trevor Project LGBTQ focus. Lifeline: 866-488-7386; free and available 24/7. TrevorText: Available on Thursdays and Fridays, 1 to 5 p.m. Pacific Time. Text the word “Trevor” to 202-304-1200. Standard text messaging rates apply.
  • You Matter: http://youmatter.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/
  • Ventura County Suicide Hotline: 877-727-4747 (24/7)
  • Ventura County Crisis Team: 1-866-998-2243 (24/7)
  • Suicide Prevention App: My3App.org
  • Local resources: Call 2-1-1, visit www.211ventura.org or text your zip code to 898211