Put all the pieces together, and the “typical teenager” portrait dissolves – Jesse’s apparent cheerfulness starts to look forced and his rebellion becomes self-medication. The afternoon before he died, he attended the wake of an 18-year-old who had died by suicide the week before, someone he hardly knew, who had been a grade ahead of him at school. Krystal passed Jesse on the steps, and thought it odd that he was there: “He looked so sad.” But the place was packed with students and not all of them had been close to the victim either.
The research on what’s called contagion – the idea that one suicide can be a form of “permission giving” to others – is ambiguous, and certainly too broad to pinpoint individuals at risk. Grieving friends experience first-hand the devastation that suicide causes, which is believed to be a deterrent. However, people who are susceptible to contagion may identify with the suicide victim from a distance – and teenagers, more likely to be influenced within a peer group, would be particularly vulnerable.
Even if Jesse’s decision to attend the wake had alarmed his family, though, his behaviour afterward would have reassured them. His co-workers at McDonald’s said he seemed down, in hindsight, but he had made weekend plans – to spend time with Derek, to watch those movies, to go on that Sunday date.
That’s part of why his sister Kelsie believes that his suicide was a rash decision, made after a few drinks, without considering the consequences. “My brother did something really stupid,” she says. “He didn’t think it through.”
Indeed, while mental illness sets a teenager on the track for suicide, the act itself is often highly impulsive. In 2001, researchers in Houston interviewed 153 young people 15 to 24 years old who had survived a serious suicide attempt. They were asked to estimate the amount of time between when they had decided they wanted to die and when they actually attempted it. In 70 per cent of the cases, the time was less than an hour. In 25 per cent, it was barely five minutes.
For Jesse, it’s impossible to know. But perhaps he hoped someone would stop him. That night, he posted a “goodbye” message on Facebook for anyone to read. And not long after Derek arrived home, he received a strange text: “Will you be my pola bearer?” Only later would he realize that Jesse had misspelled “pallbearer.”
Asleep, Derek missed a second message, found on his phone when the police knocked on his door the next morning: “You’ve always been a good great friend. Goodbye.”
Nowhere to turn
Not knowing is one thing. But what happens when you suspect a problem but can’t get help?
Another one of the June, 2010, wave of suicide victims was 16-year-old Kyle Leron-McCready, who jumped off an overpass not far from his grandmother’s house in Orleans, a suburb east of Ottawa. He didn’t leave a note, but the trigger for his family is no mystery: That morning, a teacher had called his house and told his grandmother, Althea House, that he had failed two exams. Ms. House passed the message on to Kyle, a decision she now regrets. She was on the phone looking for him when the police arrived.
Kyle’s family had known something wasn’t right: His grades were slipping, he never brought any friends home and he slept all the time. When he played on his hockey team, he sat by himself and left immediately after every game, never wanting to socialize.
Kyle’s mother, Samantha, was living in Toronto at the time. When he lived there, Kyle had started refusing to go to school or get out of bed. “At first it was frustrating,” she says, ”then frightening.” She sought help from mental-health services, but finally decided to let him move back to the capital, where his grandmother and father lived.
In Ottawa, Ms. House says she raised concerns with the school and with her family doctor, but nobody wanted to call it depression. Her suggestion that he might need medication – often a controversial course for adolescents – was rebuffed.