Suicide is the second leading cause of death among teenagers in Canada, and the start of school is a particularly high-risk time for vulnerable youth. This week, The Globe and Mail presents a special series confronting an agonizing enigma. Amid their pain, victims’ families are defying stigma and bringing the issue to light as never before. Read part two here and part three here and part four here.
A year ago today, Gary and Mindy Nelson went to work, believing that their 16-year-old son, Ben, was going to catch the school bus.
Four months earlier, the family had moved to the country from Ottawa, hoping to draw Ben away from his “dark thoughts,” as he called them. Unlike his older sister, Ben wasn’t a Starbucks kid; perhaps he would be happier in open spaces where he could ride his motorcycle on the dirt roads, see the stars at night and start fresh in a new school.
So they moved into a rambling farmhouse in Ashton, bought a flock of chickens and took solace on the rare days when they heard Ben whistling or saw him with his new cat, Gray, draped like a stole around his neck. They thought it was the right choice then. Now, they don’t know, and never will.
On the morning of Sept. 24, 2010, Ben circled back to the house, went out to a shed beside the house and took his own life with his great-grandfather’s antique gun. He didn’t leave a note.
“I always think of him making that walk. What was he thinking?” Mindy says, her voice straining. “I can’t conceive of it.”
In Ottawa and the surrounding rural area, a shocking number of families are still trying to understand why their children made similarly terrible choices and what they could have done to prevent it. In June last year, six young people died at their own hands in small towns southwest of the capital – stoic, old-fashioned places where most parents still worry far more about kids driving home in the dark from bush parties than about problems like depression or anxiety. At least two more suicides followed last September.
The victims were mostly young men, some in their early 20s, current and former students. None of them knew each other, at least not well. This seemingly random scattering of loss points to the complexity of suicide, which is not confined to a “type” or any particular circumstances.
By the time the suicide of 14-year-old Daron Richardson, the daughter of Ottawa Senators assistant coach Luke Richardson, made headlines in November, communities were scrambling to prevent more deaths, without really knowing how.
Teenage suicide remains a maddening enigma. Though rates in Canada have declined since the early 1980s, it is still the second-leading cause of death among teenagers, after car accidents. Numbers are small; in 2007, the most recent year with available data, there were 218 suicides of people between 10 and 19. But the idea that even the smallest percentage of teens could feel so hopeless and bereft makes families fear what their own children may be concealing, holed up in their bedrooms with Facebook.
The start and end of school years may be particularly vulnerable times for at-risk youth, some studies say. Just this week, in Mississauga, a 16-year-old boy killed his best friend, in an apparent act of unrequited love, and then jumped off an overpass. Last weekend, in Buffalo, N.Y., 14-year-old Jamey Rodemeyer killed himself after years of bullying; months earlier, he had posted a video to the It Gets Better anti-bullying (and anti-suicide) website, describing the taunts he had faced. He urged listeners, “Just love yourself, and you’re set.” He was found dead outside his home on Sunday morning.
And then there is the story of 17-year-old Jesse Graham, who happily posed in Ray-Bans and black tie for his Grade 12 prom in Balderson, near Perth, Ont., then decided, days later, to hang himself in the dark.