Editor's Note: WCPO Digital is not naming the teen involved in this story, nor his family, due to the sensitive nature of this topic.
WYOMING, Ohio - As he sat down on the living room couch, kitchen knife in hand, he only heard the voices of his classmates who had bullied him for years.
Home alone again. He pulled the knife toward his belly.
He took a long breath in.
He thought he would finally end it all. Instead, he saw his mother’s face. And then he saw the angelic face of his little sister.
Their faces rendered him immobile.
It was his third attempt at suicide and, to date, has been the 16-year-old’s last. Suicide is the third leading cause of death for youth between the ages of 10 and 24, according to a 2012 Centers for Disease Control report. That translates into about 4,600 lives lost each year. Each year, about 157,000 youth receive medical care for self-inflicted injuries.
“What ultimately stopped me from doing it was seeing the faces of the people who would horribly miss me,” said the teen, whom WCPO Digital is not naming. “I knew that I had people to protect in my life, like my mom and my little sister – I knew that they needed me and so I just I knew I had to be there.
“There was still stuff I had to do.”
‘So Many Kids Feel Alone’
The words come easy today for the teen, who kept all three suicide attempts secret until last year. He said he only started to talk about it after a mental health professional visited his high school and expressed the importance of talking things through.
The teen is not unlike many teenagers who contemplate suicide.
The 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control found that 16 percent of U.S. students in ninth through twelfth grades in both public and private schools reported seriously considering suicide; 13 percent reported creating a plan; and 8 percent reported trying to take their own life in the 12 months preceding the survey.
But in his case, the Wyoming teen never had a formal intervention, because his attempts didn’t cause physical harm. In effect, he’s part of an anonymous group of young people with suicidal thoughts, who believe there is no one to talk to.
“There are so many kids who feel lonely and they don’t know that so many others kids feel the same way, too,” said Cathy Strunk, director of the Surviving the Teens/Suicide Prevention program at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. “I always tell them ‘you can’t expect people to read minds.’ They might throw hints out there and no one picks it up. Be straight up about it.
“A lot of kids think they can’t communicate with their parents,’’ she added. “School connectedness and family connectedness are protective factors from suicide.”
The suicide attempt of a 17-year-old LaSalle High School student, who shot himself in a classroom filled with students and a teacher on April 29, grabbed headlines and sparked conversations in area schools, doctors’ offices and around kitchen tables of Tri-State families.
The honors student is continuing to receive care at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center after he was transferred from UC Medical Center. WCPO Digital has not named the student and his family has asked for privacy.
It remains unclear why the student attempted suicide, but among the leading contributing factors is a family history of depression, divorce, poor communication, teasing or bullying, according to the Surviving the Teens/Suicide Prevention program.
Growing Up With ‘No One There’
The 16-year-old Wyoming teen said he faced many of those factors growing up.
At school, he felt like he had no one to talk to. At home, it was more of the same.
He was enrolled in an affluent, upper middle-class school district at age 6. Already an introvert, he said was he was shy and had trouble getting along with his peers. He sat alone at lunch and didn’t play with anyone during recess, despite his best efforts.
“On top of that, people used to make fun of me a lot, saying I was weird and other stuff,” he said. “That kind of hurt my self-esteem even more.”
He gave up trying to make friends as his peers began bullying him. In first grade, he urinated on himself, prompting further teasing from his classmates. In the second grade, he soiled himself at school.
“I couldn’t stand it – I did that for about two years,” he said.
Next page: Conditions worsen, secrets persist
%page_break%At home, the teen said his parents argued often. As the primary breadwinner, his mother worked multiple jobs through his elementary school years. She battled an eating disorder of her own as well.
She said she now recognizes she not only was mentally unattached, but physically unavailable, too. WCPO Digital is not naming the teen’s mother to protect his identity.
“I’m very hurt and saddened, when I think about those years of his life. I know that I was doing all that I could do as a mom,” she said. “But there was more that I could do – being the provider, I did what I had to do, I know I wasn’t 100 percent there for him.
“I make no excuses, I was dealing with health issues, too, so I couldn’t have the physical and emotional energy to be there. I can see where it could leave him feeling like he was alone.”
When he got home from school, he was often left alone, which increased his feeling of isolation, which he cites as the primary reason for his suicidal thoughts; and ultimately his actions.
“I felt more alone there (at home), than anywhere else,” he said. “If one (parent) was home, the other would be out – sometimes they were both out of the house.”
The ‘Weird Guy’
In an attempt to stem the bullying at the elementary school, administrators and his mother decided to transfer him to a new school for a fresh start.
“I was still pretty much the weird guy,” he said.
At just 8 years old, he tried to hang himself. While standing on a chair, he saw his family’s faces flash before his eyes. Something just pulled him back.
“I saw them staring at me, watching me do it,” he said. “It brought me back to realize that this is not the way to go about handling my state of mind.”
But he didn’t seek help. In fact, he kept the attempt a secret. He told no one. Not even his mom.
Attempts And Secrets Continue
Going into middle school with the same kids from his first elementary school amplified the bullying.
“I was getting bullied from two groups of kids,” he said. “It dawned on me more and more that they both hated me and I felt even more alone – all the old stories made their way to everyone else.”
At 11, his parents' marriage was crumbling, the arguments intensified and they started on the road toward divorce.
It was too much, he said. He started to plan his second suicide. This time, he would succeed at hanging himself.
“I was in the middle of the act, and I stopped myself – I saw my family’s faces again,” he said.
He didn’t say a thing to anyone.
By the time he entered high school at 14 years old, he felt even more alone. Classmates called him names and his peers questioned his sexuality.
“Weird, punk, weakling, gay, these were the names I was being called,” he said. “I didn’t care much to talk to girls and people started calling me gay – I was just shy.”
One school day when he got home, he went into the kitchen and grabbed a knife and sat on the living room couch. Knife in hand, he sat there.
“I was mostly thinking about all the things people called me,” he recounted. “I thought about the upperclassmen talking down to me.”
He thrust the knife toward his belly but stopped, because “any person in my state of mind would be scared to do it.”
But what ultimately stopped him was once again seeing his family’s faces.
He kept his third and final attempt to himself, too.
Reducing The Stigma
As part of her education series within the Surviving the Teens/Suicide Prevention program, Strunk paid a visit to the teen’s high school last year. She told the students to talk about their issues with their parents and with each other.
“I try to reduce the stigma, the shame of being depressed and suicidal ideation,” Strunk said. “There are kids practicing the act anonymously and putting themselves in greater risk.”
That discussion prompted the Wyoming teen to tell his mom about the knife incident.
“That got me thinking: ‘I need to tell somebody before I start really getting out of hand,’” he said. “I kept thinking, ‘what’s going to stop me from trying again?’ That’s what pushed me to talking to mom about it.”
He didn’t want to tell his mom about all three attempts, because as he candidly said, “she would freak out.”
It was the first time in his life he spoke openly about his mental health with his mom and it continues to be therapeutic for both of them.
Ever so slowly, the intimate conversations led him to tell her about the two previous attempts.
“I thought my kids shared everything with me…’’ she said. “I know he’s thinking about how he doesn’t want to upset me, but I’m not as fragile as he thinks.”
Next page: Sharing his story to help others
%page_break% Giving Back
The family has been in faith-based family counseling since the teen’s disclosure. And they are considering starting a suicide prevention program at their church in Forest Park.
She wants people to speak out, saying silence complicates the issue.
“Part of the reason why I kept it quiet for a while is because, I am in leadership at the church. How do you explain it to people when people think you and your family are invincible? We’re really not, we’re human, too.”
Mother and son have a way for dealing with issues now: They ‘smile things off.’ When confronted with a stressor, the two have learned to work together, to talk about the issue and then to work to find humor in the situation that would have previously put the teen into a tailspin.
“We need to make sure that people are educated, especially the parents,” she said. “It can happen to anyone.”
How To Spot A Child At Risk For Suicide
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry lists the following as signs that a teen may try to kill themselves:
• A change in eating habits;
• Withdrawal from friends and family;
• Acts of violence or rebelliousness;
• Use of alcohol or drugs;
• Neglect of personal appearance;
• Change in personality;
• Decline in schoolwork
• Complaints about not feeling well (stomachaches, headaches, tired);
• Loss of interest in fun;
• Can not take praise
The Academy also recommends that parents take seriously any threat of suicide and seek help for a mental health professional.
24-Hour Hotlines and Resources:
• 1-888-SUICIDE (National Hopeline Network)
• 1-800-999-9999 (Covenant House Nineline)
• 1-800-448-4663 (National Youth Crisis Hotline)
• Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center Resources: 513-636-4124
• Additional resources at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention website www.afsp.org