According to University of Ottawa psychologist Darcy Santor, at least 91 per cent of suicide victims are suffering from some form of mental illness at the time of their deaths, though it may not have been diagnosed. The danger rises exponentially the more risk factors are present: depression, anxiety, alcohol abuse, bullying, social isolation, learning disabilities and often, at the root, shame. But even more so than adults, adolescents with mental illness face long waiting lists, a shortage of psychiatric beds and are often misdiagnosed.
After all, what teenager doesn’t slam doors and keep secrets, sleep too much or too little, fail tests, and suffer meanness or heartbreak? Large numbers of high-school students also say in surveys that they ruminate, however fleetingly, about suicide. So what makes the few who do take their own lives so different, and how might they be found, and saved? If society could figure this out, the benefits would be vast, for every teenager who has teetered on the edge and the families they would leave behind.
As a vital starting point, some survivors are coming out and talking about it – Daron Richardson’s father and her mother, Stephanie, went public immediately after her death. They and several other families also willingly shared their experiences and reflections with The Globe and Mail. In the face of the stigma that has surrounded suicide from the days when it was classed as a criminal offence, families are beginning to defy the long-held fear that simply saying the word will cause more deaths to occur, like a cough spreading a cold.
In Carleton Place, Ont., this month, a fundraising run was held in the name of a teenage suicide victim named Brett Pearson, who died in 2006, and a band played in a field outside the high school afterward so people could linger – an event hard to imagine even five years ago.
“We’re not going to sit in silence,” said Jesse Graham’s mom, Shelly, who joined the run. “That’s why kids are dying.”
Out of the blue?
“When the music’s over, turn off the lights,” 17-year-old Jesse wrote in the early morning of June 18, 2010, quoting Jim Morrison in the note he left for his parents to find in his bedroom. “They say that high school is the best time of your life,” he continued. “Well, high school is over. My music is done. … I’ve lived my life to the fullest.”
The next morning, his father, Jeff, noticed the lights on in the basement where Jesse slept, and found his son hanging from a beam in the ceiling.
The family was stunned. They knew Jesse had been going through some issues the past year, switching friends, drinking more heavily and doing drugs. His grades were sliding. In a family of six kids, the Grahams had already raised three other teenagers, creating the kind of home where kids’ friends turn up randomly at dinner time. They assumed Jesse was testing boundaries, lectured him on grades and gave him some space.
Earlier that spring, he had suggested to his mom that he might have attention deficit disorder; their doctor prescribed him a drug similar to Ritalin, which seemed to help with his concentration. But as for real warning signs? According to his parents and his older sister, Kelsie, there weren’t any.
Jesse was by all accounts funny and smart, a drama-club kid with a protective circle of long-term friends. He had been bugging his dad for the truck so that he could take a girl on a date that Sunday. He spent his last night with an old friend from his church youth group, Derek. On the way home, they bought six discount movies at a video store. The two of them went down to the basement; after Derek left around midnight, declining an offer to stay over, Jesse stayed up, drinking and texting, alone.