Parents of teen who took his own life encourage others to listen, act

May 12, 2019

Zion Sandoval sent final texts to his mother and father: “I love you.”

And then he was gone.

Zion, 15, a Santa Fe High School student and athlete — competing in wrestling and training in jujitsu — recently took his own life. His parents, Ben and Candace Sandoval, said they didn’t see any outward signs that the boy was struggling with anxiety or depression. They described their son as an avid reader, a prankster, a musician, a dog lover. He seemed to be a confident teen full of humor and joy, they said.

“He never let on that he had any problems,” Candace Sandoval said. “As a 15-year-old, you have so much that you just don’t express.”

While reviewing some texts Zion had sent to friends in recent weeks, his parents, who divorced last year, said they discovered he had a fear of being forgotten and concerns about what would happen to him after he graduated from high school.

The New Mexican doesn’t normally report on suicides, but Zion’s parents said they wanted to tell the story of their son’s death to raise awareness about suicide and to encourage others thinking of taking their own lives to reach out for help instead.

“I don’t think he understood the finality of his choice,” Ben Sandoval said of his son. “He didn’t understand the impact on those he left behind. But I don’t want him to have died in vain. I want other kids to see what the consequences will be and that there are other options.”

“You don’t end the sorrow,” added family friend Brady Angelique. “You just pass it on to others you love.”

As attention has turned in recent months to a rise in anxiety among children and teens nationwide, along with an increase in suicide deaths among young people in New Mexico and across the U.S., the Sandovals said they also want other parents to know that even kids who appear to be happy could be wrangling silently with mental health issues.

New Mexico long has had among the nation’s highest suicide rates. According to the state Department of Health, 491 people in the state took their own lives in 2017, a rate that’s nearly twice the national average. Many of them were young people.

In the decade between 2007 and 2017, data shows, suicides among New Mexico residents ages 10 to 24 increased by 50 percent, rising to 99 deaths from 66. Suicide was the second-leading cause of death for New Mexicans in that age group.

And the state leads the nation in its rate of Hispanic youth who take their own lives, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But Zion was more than another statistic, family members and friends said. He was a creative rebel who had a yen for history and an easy knack for making friends.

Anthony Estrada of Farmington offered a similar description of his daughter, 11-year-old Anjelita, on a GoFundMe page in January: She was “funny and charismatic,” he said. “To know her is to love her instantly.”

Anjelita took her own life two days before Christmas at the home in Connecticut where she had moved a few months earlier with her mother and stepfather. According to news reports of her death, a teacher at the sixth grader’s new school had warned administrators weeks earlier that she was being bullied by classmates because of her Hispanic heritage.

Her father’s GoFundMe campaign raised thousands of dollars to bring Anjelita’s body home for burial.

Estrada made a plea for others to share his family’s story. “Get our message out there and maybe we can save another child’s life,” he said in the GoFundMe post.

Just over a month later, 11-year-old Delia Watson of Grants killed herself in what friends and family said was another preventable suicide tied to bullying.

“Me and Delia reached out to many staff members of our school many different times about the bullying, but Delia’s voice was never heard,” her friend Malaya Martinez told the Associated Press.

Experts say it’s time for adults to listen and — in some cases — initiate what can be a tough conversation with a child or teen who might be having thoughts of taking their own life.

“Every parent, myself included, wants to believe that suicide is not relevant to their children,” said Apryl Miller, executive director of The Sky Center in Santa Fe. However, she said, “It is as relevant as wearing seat belts or teaching safe sex practices.”

The Sky Center, which offers counseling services and other support for families and teens affected by suicide, teamed with Santa Fe Public Schools’ Student Wellness Office to provide grief counselors for Santa Fe High students and staff reeling from the news of Zion’s death.

Rooms were set up at the school for both individual and group counseling, said Sue O’Brien, director of the Student Wellness Office.

“We want to get that school to a place of healing in a positive way,” O’Brien said. “We try to identify who may be the most vulnerable people — and it may not just be the kids. It may be the staff.”

Given Zion’s penchant for wrestling, she said, the counselors focused on his teammates as well as some of his closest friends.

The counselors have been encouraging students to find an adult they trust to speak to about their feelings.

That might not be a parent, O’Brien said.

“Kids, especially at the high school level, may not connect with their parents in the way their parents want,” she said.

She suggested struggling youth reach out to a teacher or other school staff member, or even make a call to a crisis hotline.

“For us, it’s about making sure they get that kind of help,” she said.

The biggest suicide risk factors for teens are depression, anxiety and access to firearms, studies show. But for many youth in the throes of developmental changes, the signs may be more subtle.

Stanford Children’s Health, a hospital system based in the San Francisco Bay Area, says on its website the normal changes of adolescence can compound other issues and lead to thoughts of suicide or even attempts: Pressure to succeed, parents’ divorce or shifts in friendships “can appear too difficult or embarrassing to overcome. For some, suicide may seem like a solution.”

The hospital advises parents and others to be on the lookout for a range of signs: hopelessness or agitation; changes in eating and sleeping habits; weight changes; loss of interest in activities or schoolwork; poor performance at school; social withdrawal; substance use; neglect of personal appearance; medical issues associated with distress, such as stomach pains, headaches and fatigue; and any communication indicating thoughts of death or suicide.

“Always take statements of suicidal feelings, thoughts, behaviors, or plans very seriously,” the hospital says.

Davin Montoya de Chavez, who considered Zion his best friend, said the teen never revealed any sign of sadness and always seemed more concerned about others than himself.

The two had met in kindergarten at Chaparral Elementary School. Zion approached Davin, the friend said, and declared: “You’re gonna be my best friend.”

The day before he died, Davin said, Zion hugged him and told him, “You’re like a brother to me.”

Ben Sandoval and Candace Sandoval said Zion, their oldest of two sons, born Aug. 21, 2003, was named in part after singer-songwriter Lauryn Hill’s soul-driven ballad “To Zion,” a tribute to Hill’s love for her then-unborn son, also named Zion.

Zion Sandoval loved to read, they said, and he loved practical jokes. “April Fool’s Day wasn’t just one day to him,” Candace Sandoval said. “It was all year long.”

He was a self-starter. Recently, he had decided to teach himself to play piano.

He learned jujitsu from his father, a photographer and jujitsu trainer in Santa Fe, and over time came to beat his dad now and again.

“We trained together. He was my best friend,” Ben Sandoval said.

Photos of Zion in an online album show a smiling boy growing from baby to child to teen.

Still, Zion’s parents said, some things weighed heavily on him.

“He tended to take on other people’s problems and issues,” his father said.

Candace Sandoval, a stylist at a local salon, said her son would cheer her up almost every day by saying — in person, by phone or by text — “I love you, Mom. You’re the best.”

Now, she said, “I wish he could say it again.”