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
Editor’s note: This is the first installment of a three-part series on teen suicide. Tomorrow’s story will examine causes of suicide among young people.
The events of July 11, 2011, replay in Holly’s mind like a bad dream from which she can never fully wake.
“I was hanging out with some old friends who definitely weren’t into the right things,” the Hendersonville High graduate told The Ville News recently. “Everyone that I was with was drinking, and I had in my mind exactly what I was going to do.”
Like so many young people, Holly had struggled with anxiety and depression. She had battled drug and alcohol abuse and had been through abusive relationships.
She felt desperate and alone, and it all came crashing down on her that July night when she was 21 years old.
“So I’m driving down New Hope Road, past Beech, and I was ready. I drove my car directly into a telephone pole, splitting it in half,” Holly remembered, her voice hushed and her words slow and deliberate, as though reliving the episode yet again.
When she regained consciousness, she was trapped and gasping for breath because of the airbags pressed against her. She had to kick the door open to escape the wreckage, and as she broke free, she had a moment of clarity.
“At that moment, everything became so clear what was really important in life,” she recalled.
Holly’s story is not as unusual as many might think. Statistics by the suicide prevention group The Jason Foundation and by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggest a staggering problem facing young people:
Suicide is the third leading cause of death among youngsters 10 to 14 and the second for young people 15 to 34.
More teenagers and young adults die from suicide each year than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza and chronic lung disease combined.
Each day in the U.S., there are an average of over 5,240 suicide attempts by young people grades 7-12.
“Over the years we’ve done surveys, and over 20 percent of our students say they have thought about it but not acted upon it,” said Debbie Sheets, coordinator of HHS’ STARS (Students Taking a Right Stand) counseling program.
The numbers for young people appear to be part of an overall rise in suicide, which has surged to the highest level in the U.S. in nearly 30 years with increases in every age group except older adults. In all, 42,773 people died from suicide in 2014, compared with 29,199 in 1999, according to a study released last month by the National Center for Health Statistics.
Behind the statistics are teens like one HHS junior who spoke to The Ville News on condition of anonymity. She is among more than a dozen people interviewed for this series who have personal experience with suicide as a counselor, a family member or friend, or as a survivor.
“I felt so much hate for people and I felt that I was hated by everyone to the point where I just wanted to end it all,” she said. “I attempted suicide three times. Each time I told my mom I wanted to kill myself, she thought it was a joke. She said that I didn’t have real problems and that the one with real problems was her.”
Another HHS student, a senior, had a harrowing encounter on her birthday.
“I had just celebrated my 13th birthday. I was feeling really excited. I was ready to go to bed, ready to go to school the next day, and … um … I hear a blood-curdling scream come from my mom’s room. She had just gotten a call that my dad had committed suicide about an hour before.”
Even though this was five years ago, that night is never far from her thoughts.
“It’s been a really hard five years, to not have my dad around for prom and upcoming graduation and in the future my wedding, college graduation, all of that,” she said. “It’s just been a long journey of healing and grief and heartbrokenness.”
Statistically, males take their own lives at nearly four times the rate of females and represent 78 percent of all suicides, according to the CDC. However, females are more likely than males to have suicidal thoughts.
Firearms are the most commonly used method for men (57 percent) and poisoning the most common method for females (35 percent), the agency reports.
For Holly, surviving the car crash opened her eyes to the people who really cared about her, and she discovered it wasn’t her party friends. She underwent treatment and found comfort that she wasn’t as alone as she thought.
“I’m not crazy. People who struggle with this are not crazy. So many people have these thoughts,” she said.
And while Holly acknowledges still having bouts of depression, she finds peace in sharing her story.
“I feel that maybe this was the direction that my life was supposed to be in,” she said. “I got a second chance, and I think whenever you realize life is really precious and you only get one of them, then you really start to change the way you do things and the way you live each day.”
Story by Jensen Tabb, Anna Burke, Ashley Baez, Cleo Graham, Lindsey Glowacki and Kolby Hayes
Like many in Middle Tennessee, Hendersonville High teachers and students have been affected by the wildfires that swept through Gatlinburg and the Great Smoky Mountains.
“We own a cabin at Gatlinburg and we’ve put a lot of money into it. We can’t call to see if our cabin is still there or not since all the phone lines are down,” said freshman Heather Gerleve. “From what I’ve heard, our whole neighborhood has been burned to the ground.”
About 14,000 people were evacuated from Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge on Monday and Tuesday (Nov. 28 and 29) after high winds fanned a rash of wildfires that left at least 14 dead and dozens injured.
The fires, which officials say were “human-caused,” damaged or destroyed more than 400 homes and businesses in Sevier County and consumed more than 17,000 acres in the area, which has been in a severe drought.
While recent rains have helped, firefighters continue to battle the fires, which they said were only about 10 percent contained because of the steep terrain. Many roads into the resort area were closed.
HHS nurse Sue Buckberry could only wait as the fire raged near her Gatlinburg condo.
“The condo was saved but a little motel in front of the condo caught on fire,” she said Thursday. “While the firefighters were putting out the fire from the motel, they wet the condo down so it wouldn’t catch on fire.”
The HHS boys’ soccer team was to compete in a tournament in Gatlinburg this weekend. Needless to say, the team won’t be making the trek.
“The complex we were going to use is being used by families as a shelter,” said freshman Eric Kohls.
Sophomore Patrick Finlin said he was disappointed the tournament had to be canceled. “I was really looking forward to it because my grandparents were going to get to come to see me play,” he said.
But like most at HHS, Finlin felt bad for people affected by the fires. Baseball coach Mike Hendrix said, “I feel so sorry for the people who have lost their lives, jobs, and houses. I’m so lucky that I wasn’t there and had to face that tragedy.”
The HHS chapter of Future Farmers of America is sponsoring a drive to collect water, food, and other items to help victims. The drive runs through Dec. 12.
In a Thursday email to HHS staff, chapter President Alyssa Capes said the victims need bottled water, non-perishable canned foods, pet food, blankets, winter coats, and personal hygiene items such as toilet paper, toothbrushes and deodorant.
“These will be collected in your second block,” she wrote. “If you would like to contribute, but have none of these items to give, we are accepting money donations, Walmart gift cards, and you can also text REDCROSS (all capitals and no space) to 90999 to donate $10 which will be charged to your wireless account.”
Capes asks that teachers place donations outside their second block classroom for FFA members to pick up during Commando Time.
Article by Lindsey Glowacki, Jensen Tabb, Ashley Baez, Kolby Hayes and Sarah Yi
Hendersonville High’s reproduction of “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens isn’t just a festive way to start the holiday season, it also offers “a little history lesson as well,” explained HHS theatre teacher Laurie Kerhoulas-Brown, known to her students as Mrs. KB.
The play, which is open to the public Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings at 7 (Dec. 1-3) in the school auditorium, will be acted and voiced as though taking place in a late 1930s or early 1940s radio studio.
Theatre teacher Carole Ann Everson’s fourth block students created the set to look like the old studio, complete with vintage microphones, and the audience will feel as though they are in the studio live.
Mrs. KB is encouraging students to attend the play so they can “experience not just sports but immerse themselves in the arts as well.”
Tickets are $7 and available at the door.
Seniors can catch a performance Friday during second block for only $3. A preview show was held for all grades just before Thanksgiving break.
Cast members are Kyra Ankrom, Kerra Casteel, Kara Chittom, Noah Clark, Natalie Duke, Andrew Freeland, Carson Jackson, Cianon Jones, Haley Martin, Caroline Miller, Jack Mnich, Kendal Nolen, Mason Owen, Brenden Stoops, Conner Stumm, Connie Waller, Brianna Walsnovich and Reggie Waters.
In addition, Laurie Canaan is the radio studio musician on fiddle, keyboard and piano; the student director is Canon Jones; and the assistant director Kyra Ankrom.
Article by Rebecca Porter, Ashlyn Williams and Bella Stokes
December 1st, 2nd, 3rd.
Taylor Swift Auditorium.
Hendersonville High School
Hendersonville High surpassed its $8,000 goal for this year’s United Way fundraising drive by $600.
STARS counselor Debbie Sheets, who led the drive, credits students and teachers for their generosity. This year’s collection is about $2,500 more than last year’s.
“Even retired teachers have helped out the campaign and have sent checks to donate,” Sheets said.
HHS Principal Bob Cotter wrote in a Tuesday email to staff, “Thank you to everyone who contributed and helped make this the best United Way drive ever…The agencies the United Way supports will be so grateful for your donations.”
The United Way of Sumner County helps fund 31 local agencies, including the STARS (Students Taking a Right Stand) counseling program at HHS, the Crisis Pregnancy Center, Meals on Wheels, Community Childcare and The Literary Council.
“I think it’s a really good cause, and whatever we can do to help people is really great,” said freshman Olivia Holloway.
Not everyone was as enthusiastic, however. Some questioned the salary of United Way Worldwide CEO Brian Gallagher as well as the organization’s administrative costs.
"I think that's great, but I don't think they are going to be using the money appropriately," said sophomore Alexa Gronemeier. "They'll distribute the money where the CEO gets paid a massive amount, and then they will distribute a little bit of it" to the agencies it supports.
Criminal Justice teacher Regan Cothron said, "Their CEO makes a considerable salary, and I don't think a CEO for a non-profit company should make that much money."
Gallagher’s total compensation last year was $1.2 million, according to United Way Worldwide, the leadership and support organization for a network of independent local United Way groups including Sumner County’s.
United Way Worldwide, which bills itself as the world’s largest privately-funded charitable organization and has an overall rating of three of four stars by the watchdog group Charity Navigator, maintains that Gallagher’s pay is comparable to CEOs of organizations of similar size and scope.
Cotter is comfortable with United Way’s track record. He said the United Way of Sumner County’s last fundraising campaign took in $930,399, of which $631,382 went to the local agencies it supports.
“So 68 percent of what was taken in went back out to organizations in need of funding,” Cotter said. “I have not studied a lot of charitable organizations but that seems to be a good amount back into the organizations being served in relation to administrative costs.”
United Way of Sumner County President and CEO Dana Given said the organization has operating costs like rent, utilities, salaries and other expenses associated with fundraising that accounts for the difference between the amount collected or promised to the United Way and the amount distributed to agencies.
“United Way of Sumner County’s overhead rate of 15 percent is well below industry standards and recommendations, like those from the Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance at 35 percent and the Federal Office of Personnel Management/OPM at 25 percent,” Given said in a written statement Friday.
"Additionally," Given wrote, "approximately 8 percent of pledges made to our United Way are never received because of life circumstances, like people leaving their jobs or other personal situations. This means we never realize the full amount pledged to us during a campaign."
Article by Sarah Whitlow and Skye Cadorette