Suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people in Texas. Why is our community failing to help these vulnerable teens and young adults?
After her boyfriend killed himself, Katelyn* didn’t go back to Plano Senior High School for weeks. The loss of him, only a few days after his 18th birthday, and another female student within a month of each other left students reeling with grief during the fall semester of 2016. When Katelyn, known to friends as Katie, came back to school to finish her junior year a cloud of depression followed.
“She always carried around a stuffed bear that had [her boyfriend’s] voice on a recorder saying, ‘I love you Katelyn,’” Emma*, a close friend of Katie’s tells me. “She would bring blankets to class and couldn’t do anything but lay her head down on the desk. One day, during science class, I said to her, ‘You’re so strong for being able to live through this.’ She said, ‘I don’t know how I do it some days.’”
On June 1, Emma went to her science class after a long night of studying for the final exam. Before starting the test, a counselor came in and pulled the teacher aside.
“Then our teacher stood at the front of the class and said, ‘Throughout this past year we’ve become close; we’re a little [science class] family, and a member of our family was lost last night.’ I looked back at [Katie’s] seat, and I just knew. The teacher told us that Katie had taken her own life. My first thought was that this was bound to happen. I ran out into the hallway crying and called a mutual friend. He didn’t answer with a hello. He just said, ‘I know.’”
The City of Plano is all too familiar with teenage suicide. From 1983 to 1984, city records say eight Plano teenagers killed themselves in the span of about a year, and at least 15 suicide attempts had been reported, according to The New York Times. Plano became national news.
The suicides in Plano were not isolated events. In 1985, a 17-year-old Arlington High School student shot himself in front of fellow classmates in drama class. In 1988, three Richardson students committed suicide, and on January 8, 1991, Jeremy Wade Delle, also a Richardson student, shot himself during class. A Dallas Morning News article by Bobbi Miller and Annette Nevins about Delle’s suicide became the inspiration for the Grammy nominated song, Jeremy by Pearl Jam.
D Magazine published a piece in December of 1983 titled “Why Plano?” by Rowland Stiteler. At the time, Plano was a bedroom community of 86,000 with an average family income that was more than 50 percent higher than the national average. “Its residents, for the most part, are not old-money ultra-affluent, but rather middle- and upper-middle management types who have clawed their way up the corporate ladder … to buy themselves a spot in a pastoral setting 20 freeway miles from the problems of inner-city Dallas,” Stiteler wrote. “They are ultra-achievers, and they have passed that legacy along to their children, who, in turn, have made the Plano Senior High School Wildcats perennial victors on the football field and in academic ranks as well.”
The article doesn’t explain why so many young people decided to end their lives that year, but it attempts to find pieces that fit the larger puzzle. Stiteler quotes experts who said it was teens rejecting the “perfect lifestyle” their parents made for them, others said the teenagers felt like they had no identity, that their parents should have been more attentive while some said parents were too demanding.
Stiteler does encourage parents not to hesitate seeking out professional help for their children and that they shouldn’t be afraid to discuss suicide with them. But then he closes with a simplified call to action: “The key to keeping these kids alive is showing them they can be happy again.”
Nothing is written about teenagers experiencing extreme stress, anxiety or bullying. There’s one mention of depression which experts attributed to being caused by the isolation of a suburban lifestyle and pressure to succeed. Today, we know telling a person who suffers from depression to “just be happy again” is equivalent to telling a person with an open wound to just stop bleeding.
So, back to square one: Why Plano? Why did this suicide cluster happen nearly 35 years ago, why does teen suicide still happen today, and what can we—as a community—do to prevent it?
Suicide is the second leading cause of death for people ages 10 to 24 in Texas, according to the Suicide and Crisis Center of North Texas. In 2014, of 491 young suicides in Texas, 20 percent happened in North Texas.
January of 2016, two friends from Plano East killed themselves within hours of each other, and just a few months later, McCann Utu killed his brother, Josiah Utu, and his mother Stacy Fawcett, before killing himself. Plano once again made international news.
That fall, after Gabriel died, a mandatory presentation was held at Plano Senior High School for all students.
“They brought in counselors and Student Council put on a Mental Health Week. The main message was: if you need help, reach out. It’s okay to not be okay, but it’s not okay to be silent about it,” Emma explains. “Everyone was upset [about the students’ deaths] but the information in the presentation wasn’t anything we hadn’t heard before. It wasn’t ground breaking news; stress can lead to depression which leads to suicide. Here’s a [hotline] number. It’s great Plano ISD was taking it seriously, but, like, we’ve had two kids kill themselves and they put on a presentation, and then they went back to regular protocol.”
Depression and anxiety among teens and young adults is at an all time high. The American College Health Association found a significant increase of undergraduate students reporting “overwhelming anxiety” over the last year, from 50 percent in 2011 to 62 percent in 2016. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety is the most common mental-health disorder in the U.S. and affects one-third of adults and adolescents.
Dr. Gregory Plemmons, an associate professor at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt, conducted a study of 32 children’s hospitals across the U.S. between 2008 and 2015. The study reports that the “number of children and adolescents admitted to children’s hospitals for thoughts of suicide or self-harm more than doubled during the last decade.” More than half the patients with suicidal thoughts or actions were 15 to 17 years old, and nearly 13 percent were between the ages of 5 and 11.
“We’re working to destigmatize mental health issues in the community,” Jana Hancock, Director of Guidance and Education Services for Plano ISD, says. “I’d like to see more of an open dialogue in the community—more understanding between students, parents and staff.”
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One way Plano ISD reaches out to parents is through presentations hosted by the Grant Halliburton Foundation, which has a “number of programs aimed at teaching people how to recognize the signs of distress or suicidal crisis in a young person and how to lead them to help,” and they offer their services for free. Every year they show presentations at various campuses across the district, but according to Jana attendance is only around 50 to 60 adults; there are nearly 55,000 students in the Plano ISD district. “We’d like to see a lot more,” Jana says, “but regardless, we’re impacting the families that do attend.”
Getting parents on board to discuss mental health isn’t always an easy task. Jennifer Huynh is the program director for Teens Can Survive at the Suicide and Crisis Center of North Texas. She helps organize support groups for survivors, prevention outreach programs as well as online screenings that can assess if a student is struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts—all services are free.
“We forget mental health. A lot of times parents focus on academics which is important, but sometimes they may not understand that if a kid’s mental health is not 100 percent, it affects their academics and physical well being,” Jennifer explains. “Sometimes it’s difficult getting consent [for the screenings] because [parents] are not sure what it’s about or they think, ‘My kid is fine.’ We tell them it’s preventative, but sometimes the parents say, ‘My kid was fine last year, so they don’t need to take it this year.’ But things can change dramatically year to year, month to month, even week to week. That’s part of the overall stigma of mental health. I compare [the screening] to a yearly physical.”
Clinical depression, also known as Major Depression Disorder (MMD), often shows up in children and teens who experience childhood trauma or have a genetic predisposition.
“When they face lots of stress depression will flare up. The difference between a moody teenager and depression is that it’s long lasting. It’s not momentary. It’s like your kid has been down for days in a row that turn into weeks. [They express] lack of ability to do things, isolation, they sleep too much or not enough, extreme weight gain or weight loss. Look for things out of the ordinary,” Lana Bagley, a local professional counselor, explains.
“If you see your child starting to struggle, the faster you get them help, then the easier it will be to get them back on track,” Lana says. She often sees parents wait until the situation is problematic because they don’t want to medicate their kid or put them in therapy. There is also a perceived norm that kids must be pushed to be the best, without taking their child’s resilience into consideration. A teenager may not appear to be struggling, but that doesn’t mean they’re okay.
“A lot of times teens who are perfectionists mask their depression because everything has to be perfect. It’s really hard to detect it in those kids because that’s what they’ve done their entire life. Another problem is teens still have misconceptions about therapy and how to get help. They think they can talk to friends, but their friends are not giving them healthy advice. They don’t have the logic or understanding,” Lana says.
Depression flare-ups aren’t just caused by stress from school. Social media plays a huge role in the lives of young people today.
“I constantly deal with bullying,” Lana says. “I see kids in the 3rd grade who are cutting [themselves]. It’s really not the same world I grew up in. That’s something parents don’t understand. This is DEFCON 1. … Social media—it’s absurd. We have more kids coming to therapy because they don’t know how to manage [social media], and it’s ruling their lives.”
Today teens find validation from likes on Instagram, favorites on Twitter and streaks on Snapchat, and if they don’t receive that validation it can feel life-shattering. Lana sees most parents either allow their children to use social media freely, or they try and cut them off from it completely. She believes neither options work.
“[If you take social media away] then kids get secretive. The key with social media is education. Not allowing any social media … that’s not helping these kids. We need to teach them to use their phone and apps in a responsible way.”
Jennifer often deals with cyberbullying, but also sees a positive side to social media.
“When [students are] at school and being bullied, social media allows them to be bullied at home. They can’t get away from it. But social media also allows people to express themselves, and sometimes they gives us clues when they’re feeling suicidal. If you’re concerned about something someone posted tell an adult immediately, show them the post, and get school counselors involved. Facebook now has an option to flag posts and it sends that person the number to a suicide hotline.”
This coming year, Plano ISD will implement a new mental health curriculum from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center (UT Southwestern) that teaches strategies for improving mental health for everyone, not just students who suffer from depression or anxiety.
“We went with this program because it’s heavily researched,” Jana explains. “In Europe they researched with 10,000 adolescents, and after delivery there was a significant decrease in suicide attempts and completions. Our guidance lessons are always being updated to meet the needs of the students.”
This new program from UT Southwestern is a one time curriculum delivery, meaning students will only see it once, most likely in their health class. While mental health training and programs are constantly being updated, Jennifer isn’t sure school counselors have the ability to help every student.
“Each district is very different, but I have noticed when we go to some schools the [counselors] have to do everything from scheduling, academic meetings and anything else administrative. It’s hard when there are so many students and so little counselors. Some districts have large caseloads and there are limitations, but I encourage students to ask their counselors for help,” Jennifer says.
Lana has personally had issues with school counselors and her patients. “School counselors are great, but their job is often focused on the academic side. They would like to do more—I’m sure. But I’ve had multiple situations where students were having a major issue. I ask if they talked to their counselor and the counselor does nothing to help the situation until I call. Why aren’t you listening, why aren’t you taking this seriously until I call?”
Jana says Plano ISD is working to streamline other responsibilities for their counselors in order to dedicate more time to working with students who are struggling as the need for social and emotional support is increasing. But even with more access to programs and counselors, Emma thinks issues with mental health run deeper in teen culture.
“I feel like this era should be referred to as the era of depression,” she explains. “It feels like everyone my age struggles with anxiety or depression. I could name so many people I know that have an eating disorder or self harm. I know tons of people on medication. I have friends that have tried to take their life. We talk about it. Expressing that you’re depressed is very common—it’s weird … like if someone said they deal with suicidal thoughts I would be like, ‘Yeah, you, me and everyone else.’ How do you know when you’re just in a funk or actually have depression? When everyone is dealing with that, then you’re like, ‘I guess that’s just being 18.’”
People with suicidal thoughts reach out for help in 8 of 10 cases. More often than not, they confide in their friends rather than a parent. The most important thing teens and young adults need to know: If you believe a friend is suicidal call their parents or 911 immediately. Don’t worry about getting a friend in trouble; only worry about saving their life.
Update (April 20, 2018): Since this story was published, Emma lost another friend to suicide. He was best friends with Katie and her boyfriend.
If you are in crisis or have suicidal thoughts, please call the suicide crisis hotline at 214-828-1000. You can also text “CONNECT” to 741741 anytime to reach trained, caring volunteers at the National Crisis Text Line.
*Name has been changed to protect the privacy of this individual.
This story was originally printed in the January 2019 issue of Plano Profile under the name, “By the time you read this, I’ll be gone.”