Editor’s note: This is the second installment of a three-part series on teen suicide. Tomorrow’s story will explore resources to help young people struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts.
When Kate (a pseudonym) was 4, she was diagnosed with depression, anxiety and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). By seventh grade, she started cutting herself after she found her friend was doing it to cope with her problems. It sounded like a solution.
The next year, in eighth grade, Kate tried to end her life.
“I didn’t know why I was so depressed,” the Hendersonville High student told The Ville News on condition of anonymity. “I had lived a blessed life.”
Suicidal thoughts have many triggers including substance abuse, trauma and bullying, but two big ones are depression and anxiety. In 2015, about 3 million young people ages 12 to 17 had had at least one major depressive episode in the past year, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Meanwhile, the National Institute of Mental Health reports that about 30 percent of girls and 20 percent of boys – 6.3 million teens - have had an anxiety disorder.
“Students are under a lot of pressure,” said Debbie Sheets, coordinator of HHS’s STARS (Students Taking a Right Stand) counseling program, who cites a sharp rise in standardized testing, a saturation of social media and a relentless push to succeed from some parents as major reasons so many young people are having problems.
Justin Sweatman-Weaver, director of the Sumner County Drug Coalition and regional leader of the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network, said “pressure on teens is higher than it has ever been” and comes at a crucial time in their development, when they have a natural chemical imbalance in the brain that makes them vulnerable.
“They are at a higher risk because their brains are not fully developed,” he said. “They are more impulsive and have a stronger reaction to negative things.”
Many teen suicides also are linked to substance abuse, though not always by the teen. Often, it is a parent or sibling struggling with the addiction.
Stephen Bargatze, an inspirational speaker and entertainer, attempted suicide as a young man after living with an alcoholic father. Bargatze said his father suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after the Korean War and became reclusive, chronically drunk and verbally abusive.
“Alcoholism affected everyone in my family,” said Bargatze, who shares his experience as part of a magic act he performs in schools.
Statistically, people who abuse alcohol and/or drugs attempt to kill themselves nearly six times as frequently as people who don’t have a substance addiction, according to a 2014 report in Psychology Today.
One HHS senior who asked to remain anonymous said her father took his life after a long history of drug and alcohol abuse. “He couldn’t get help,” she said, “and he was tired of hurting his friends and family.”
A cycle of drugs, alcohol and abusive relationships led Holly, a 2008 HHS graduate, to attempt suicide about five years ago.
“I struggled a lot with anxiety and depression in high school,” Holly said. “I always felt like I wasn’t good enough… I didn’t really fit in with anybody.”
After high school, she moved in with a man who became verbally abusive. “I was like, ‘Well, these are the same things that I think about myself,’ so it was nothing new to me. It was just reassuring all these feelings that I already had about myself,” she recalled.
Then the relationship turned physically abusive, she said, and she began to fear for her life. “This man had guns in the house, drugs, and I fell into that as well, just trying to numb my pain.”
In 2011 she finally gathered the courage to leave him. She had two hours to put as many of her belongings as she could into the back of her car and flee. She said he followed her, stalked her, and harassed her.
After a night of drinking with friends, Holly decided to take her own life. She drove around town, contemplating how to do it. She decided to crash her car into a telephone pole. “I thought it was what I wanted.”
Bullying is another leading cause among young people, especially those in the LGBTQ+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning and others) community. The CDC reports that the rate of suicide attempts is four times greater for LGB youth and two times greater for questioning youth than that of straight youth.
Many say social media has increased the amount and degree of bullying. An HHS freshmen observed, “In the click of a button, anyone can say whatever they want to on anyone’s profile. It might be positive, but sadly there are cases where it is used to post hateful, rude, embarrassing, personal or just mean things about that person.”
Kate, the HHS student who began cutting herself and then tried to take her life, said she felt guilty for feeling the way she did because her life had been “blessed” compared to others she knew, though she describes a childhood marred by a messy divorce and a verbally abusive father.
She received treatment and medication, but the medicine didn’t always help; the darkness would return.
“I was so negative for so long that nobody wanted to be my friend,” she said.
This year has been better for Kate, but she acknowledges, “There are still tough days, bad days.” A good student, she plans to go to college to study psychology.
“You have to find hope in something,” she said. “School, faith, and friends – those are the things I stay focused on.”
Story by Anna Burke, Skye Cadorette, Grace Phillips and Sarah Whitlow