The tragedy of youth suicide: Children searching for hope

The loss of a young life whether by accidental or natural circumstance is a tear in the fabric of humanity’s immortal soul. Photo: Phoebe Prince, Haylee Fentriss, Paige Moravetz

DALLAS, May 12, 2012 – The loss of a young life whether by accidental or natural circumstance is a tear in the fabric of humanity’s immortal soul. In cases of young suicide it is the daily unrequited suffering that drives innocent victims to seek an untimely end.

Devastated family members, teachers and friends are left to agonize over the question that will haunt them forever: “Why?” “Why would someone with so much life ahead of them choose to end theirs? Why didn’t they tell anybody that they thought their life was so worthless?

These are the question millions of parents have asked themselves in the aftermath of their child’s suicide and few have come up with the answers.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2004 the rate of youth suicide saw the largest increase in fifteen years. In the years from 1990 to 2003 the suicide rate among 10 to 24 year olds decreased 28 percent but in 2004 the rate for the same group spiked an increase of 8 percent. Three groups in particular saw significant increases in suicide rates in 2004: 15 to 19 year old males, 10 to 14 year old females and 15 to 19 year old females.

The most disturbing increase of 119 percent was for suicide by hanging/suffocation for young girls aged 10 to 14. For young males aged 15 to 19 a smaller increase occurred with firearms being the method used.

Suicide was the third leading cause of death among young adults in the United States in 2004. A previous survey by CDC, of both the public and private school systems grades 9 thru 12, found that 17 percent of students were seriously considering suicide, 13 percent had a plan for committing suicide and 8 percent had attempted suicide in the past year.

Males are typically more violent in their attempts and ultimately more successful making up three-fourths of the deaths by suicide in the 10 to 19 year old age group.

So what do these disturbing numbers tell us? That we have to do better as a society, as a community, as parents and as friends to put steps in place including education to prevent another child from being lost.

I am familiar with the inescapable path of youth suicide and I regret to say that in my case there was no attempt, for in the end I was successful. According to the Emergency Room doctors I was technically dead for three minutes. I stopped breathing and my heart had slowed its beat to a stop as I drifted away despite their best efforts.

The doctors were baffled by my return to this world and could offer no concrete explanation as to why my heart suddenly began beating again. I have my own theory as to why I am here today.

By the age of twelve, I had been sexually and physically abused for seven years. Imprisoned in a highly toxic family with no means of escape I succumbed to a moment of weakness. I had been using alcohol as a coping mechanism to deal with the physical and emotional pain of my abuse. That night I had stolen a bottle of Vodka from my parent’s liquor cabinet and as I was drinking I stumbled on a bottle of sleeping pills in my mothers dresser drawer.

I had contemplated suicide many times but there were no grand thoughts as I opened the cap to that yellow bottle and let the tiny pills roll into my mouth. I can still see the bottom of the Vodka bottle as I raised it high and the agent of my demise snaked its way down my throat.

Medical professionals understand but only survivors know the peace that suicide victims feel when the end is inevitable. It is one of the reasons that planned suicides are so difficult to detect and prevent. When you let go of all the pain and suffering by surrendering your life you begin to feel the calm you have always longed for.

The sad truth is that in the mind of a victim when you feel the grip of your past releasing its hold you feel the sacrifice of your life is the price for this calm. Although some suicides may be sudden many are well planned and take months or even a year to come to fruition. Behaviors such as depression, extreme anxiety, drug or alcohol use, poor school performance or changes in appetite may mask themselves in the period prior to a suicide attempt.

That is why it is so critical to become attuned to your child’s personality and address any of these behaviors before the moment passes and their path becomes certain.

So why does a child decide their life is no longer valuable? In my case it was years of sexual and physical abuse for many years. Trying to reach anyone with what was happening to me was futile; I was trapped in a toxic family and invisible to the world.

During one attempt to speak of my abuse I was pulled from the doctors office only to return the next day with three broken ribs. I was punished for “Opening my mouth. When I should have kept it shut” and my ribs paid the price.

During that time the medical field was not so attentive to signs of abuse and the doctor was simply told I fell out of a tree. I felt I had explored every avenue of escape and the world had turned a blind eye to my fate. In deciding my suicide in those split seconds I even fantasized my death would bring attention to my situation and that my abuser would be punished in the aftermath of my demise.

These were of course fantasies, as later events would prove.

In today’s world even the best parents face an enormous challenge. In a struggling economy the need to make end meet means working parents have a much greater burden despite their best efforts. Additional factors such as social media and violent video games have exploded in the lives of our children with parents struggling to keep up with outside influences beyond their comprehension.

In a study done by the CDC that tried to excavate the root cause of youth suicide among young girls it was found that damaged relationships with family and friends directly influenced thoughts of suicide. This was brought into strong relief in the case of Phoebe Prince the fifteen-year-old Massachusetts girl who committed suicide after she was bullied in 2010 at her high school and on Facebook.

Bullying has long been a problem in our schools but with the rise of social media no place has become a safe haven, not even a child’s home.

Cyber bullying involves the use of an electronic device such as a cell phone or computer to harass or intimidate a victim using threatening or degrading messages or pictures. The rise of “cyber bullying” has left many parents powerless as they try to shield their children from the darker side of the world.

A 2007 report by the NATIONAL CRIME PREVENTION COUNCIL (NCPC) found that 35% of Middle School students had experienced cyber bullying while among high school students the rate was 51%.

The NCPC reports that in a survey of 13 to 17 year olds, 27% said their parents are unaware of what they are doing online and 43% said their parents have no rules for their online activity.

Beginning at age 13 parental involvements begins a dramatic decline from 90% at age 10-12 to 41% at age 13 to 15. Girls aged 15-16 were the most likely target for cyber bullies.

Phoebe Prince had recently moved from Ireland to. Struggling to make friends in a new environment she became the target of bullies at South Hadley High Schoolwho stalked and harassed her.

Phoebe Prince hung herself in her room just two days before a dance at her high school.

The nine juveniles responsible for the death of Phoebe Prince were charged with violation of civil rights, criminal harassment, disturbing a school assembly and statutory rape. Sadly, several of the girls responsible mocked her death on Facebook. Teachers who knew of the bullying and did nothing were not prosecuted.

Guilty pleas resulted in sentences of probation and community service.

The death of Phoebe Prince, along with that of an eleven year old in 2009, created the drive that put in place new anti-bullying legislation in the state of Massachusetts.

Cyber bullying is most harmful to those who are isolated or already suffering from depression or anxiety. Its effects can push these individuals closer to the edge from which there is no turning back. The key to stopping cyber bullying starts at home. Parents have to teach their children that bullying in any form is wrong and to speak up when anyone including him or her is victims.

Unfortunately most children are afraid to talk to their parents about bullying fearing it will only make things worse. Vigilance married to thoughtful communication are the best tools we have in combating this fear.

Schools are joining the fight with anti-bullying programs and education for students but there is still a great deal of work to be done. Promoting legislation that makes harsher penalties for cyber bullies and provided funding for educational and outreach programs is crucial to being an end to the suffering of our children.

In 2011 a tragedy occurred in the isolated Minnesota town of Lynd, Minnesota. Haylee Fentress and Paige Moravetz, both fourteen formed a suicide pact as a result of bullying after being harassed at school. In hindsight friends and relatives acknowledged the signs that something was wrong. Facebook posts by Haylee highlighted how alone and isolated she felt and as the tragic date drew closer she posted “I’m so nervous and I just want to get it over with.”

She had moved to Lynd a year earlier and was grappling with the effects of her parents divorce. Her weight made her an immediate target for bullies and Paige Moravetz, stepped in to defend her. The two grew incredibly close only to become more isolated from the rest of the student population.

During a Saturday night sleepover the two set their plan in motion and were found the next morning by Haylee’s mother after they had hung themselves.

The fragile nature of human life escapes our attention as we go about our day-to-day routines oblivious to the world around us. Victims of youth suicide exist in a world unfamiliar to most of us where the pain of life beckons for relief and in desperation the unthinkable is contemplated.

The hopelessness of that time for me, when my life ceased to have value, is still fresh in my memory as is the reason I am still here today. In the endless void that people often describe follows death I floated for what seemed like an eternity slowly gravitating towards a white light. I stood on an endless plain surrounded by many other people and I felt peaceful for the first time in my life.

Someone spoke to me in the most calming voice I had ever heard and it said my time was not yet here and that I had to return. The voice said I had a purpose in life that was not yet fulfilled and that on the other side of all my pain and suffering I would find happiness that would wash away the pain of all my years of abuse. It was then I awoke to the wide-eyed stare of the doctors and nurses and the Emergency Room echoed with silence.

Through education and active involvement in the lives of our children we can win the fight against youth suicide. Everyone has to become involved such that any adult or peer can recognize the signs of bullying or a child at risk for suicide.

The life you save may be your own for the person you rescue may be the one that cures cancer or becomes an advocate for those who are suffering or are in need. I will say with certainty to anyone contemplating suicide that it is not the answer and that your darkest days will be just a memory someday.

Just keep saying to yourself, or say to your children “I/you have value as a person and I/you have something special inside that the world desperately needs.”

Ask for help, or help a child ask for help, from friends, family or teachers and if that seems overwhelming make an anonymous call for help. Dial 911, or make a call to any suicide hotline, crisis center, police station or church.

The world is a much better place with you in it and that the alternative to living is not a peaceful surrender until we have found its purpose on earth and our invitation to the next world is sent by a higher power.


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Jerome Elam

Raised in the south, I joined the United States Marine Corps at the age of seventeen and spent the next eight years seeing the world. After my enlistment was finished I attended college and graduated to work in the Biotechnology sector.

I have struggled against many things in my life including childhood sexual abuse and somehow I found a way to survive. Writing is my passion and it keeps me in touch with the wealth everyone holds deep inside their hearts and minds. 

I am married with two beautiful children, and they have made my life complete. I have written all my life and enjoy creating lyrics as well as novels. I enjoy spending time with my children and teaching them about music, art, nature and the value of family.

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