Mental illness and depression don’t discriminate: A look at teens and suicide

Malorie Marshall | 4/17/2014, 3:26 p.m.

The Thursday before Valentine’s Day, the temperature never made it out of the 30s. Wet, half-brown slush covered the ground and another New York City child decided to take her own life.

At a private meeting of school principals last month, Chancellor Carmen Fariña acknowledged that 10 New York City schoolchildren have died by suicide since the beginning of this school quarter in January according to local news reports. Jayah Ram Jackson, who leapt from the roof of her grandmother’s building in February, is one of those 10. Suicide is the third leading cause of death for young adults 15-24 years old according to the Suicide Awareness Voices of Education website.

The most recent report from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene states that even if teens do not die by suicide, they are injuring themselves in the process. Young adults 15-24 years old have some of the highest rates for hospitalization due to self-inflicted injuries. Of all age groups across the board, young women ages 15-24 have the highest rates of self-inflicted injury hospitalization per 100,000.

National Organization for People of Color Against Suicide co-founder Donna Barnes says it’s important that adults help teens appropriately share their emotions, especially in the wake of a peer’s suicide.

“When you have a suicide, say, a 14-year-old in middle school, and it’s not addressed properly, students are already vulnerable. You already have about 5 percent thinking about suicide; they aren’t necessarily gonna do it, but they’re vulnerable,” Barnes said in a phone interview. “We need to encourage our kids to talk about their feelings.”

Barnes, who is director of the Suicide Prevention Program at Howard University, founded the organization in the late 1990s, almost a decade after her son Marc killed himself.

“If anyone told me the day before that my son was going to commit suicide, I would have said you’re crazy,” Barnes said. “He was to me, my perfect child.”

Barnes says Marc was away at school and on the baseball team. He went from taking an exam on a Tuesday morning to driving his car into the river.

“Suicide is a behavior, and we can’t control how people behave,” Barnes said. “We can only teach them on strengthening their coping skills, not believing everything they think and being open about their feelings.”

In the most recent numbers from the National Institute of Mental Health, Blacks as a specific group are among the lowest numbers of suicide deaths, with just about five deaths per 100,000 people. For author and licensed psychotherapist Terrie Williams, statistics like that aren’t indicative of the entire story.

“When we don’t deal with our emotional pain and scars and issues, we will do anything to self–medicate,” Williams said in a phone interview. She cited other high-risk behaviors like drug and alcohol consumption, gambling and unprotected sexual intercourse as a method of coping. Williams, 59, who wrote the book “Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We’re Not Hurting,” also feels that adults who grew up dealing with depression and other issues are allowing the same issues to fester generation after generation.

“Adults need to be honest with their kids,” Williams said. “We’re teaching them to pretend, that all is well when it’s not. We do them a great, great, great injustice when we stay silent.”

Though a teen may encounter or even enforce silence around issues like mental health and suicide in their offline lives, things may be quite different online. In a 2013 Pew Research Center study, 90 percent of 18-29 year olds use social networking sites. Though Jayah Ram Jackson was three years younger than the threshold of the Pew study, she was a social media user. After her death, images were posted illustrating conversations she had online about depression and suicide.

Mental health advocate Kasey Woods urges teens who may be struggling with depression or mental health issues to check out solutions that may work for them, whether they be on or offline.

“Look into what’s offered at your school, they have resources. There are different blogs run by other teenagers who are going through what you are going through,” Woods said. Woods, who struggled through multiple breakdowns before being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, uses herself as an example that mental illness comes in all shapes, ages and colors.

“So many people who are committing suicide feel like they don’t have anywhere else to go and nobody to talk to,” Woods said in a phone interview. “Even as an adult, being able to relate to someone who went through what you’re going through, looks like you, sounds like you makes the difference.”

Though it may be too late for Jayah, one of her friends wants to make sure that her death will not have been in vain.

After Jayah’s suicide, her friend Caitlin created a White House petition to urge that therapists and other mental health professionals have the permission to monitor the social media accounts of patients in their care.

“I think it’s easier to open up to a computer screen than it is to talk to the people around you, including those hired to help you,” Caitlin, 15, said in an email following a phone interview. “I feel as though parents or guardians, who are unfamiliar with the scope of the Internet, will agree with me that this can help save lives.”

At last check before going to print, Caitlin’s latest petition had one signature her own. She says her first petition received six or seven signatures before it expired. She needed 100,000 in order for it to be reviewed by the White House. She says she’ll keep doing it until she gets her message out there.

When asked what she would like people to remember about Jayah, her answer is simple, “I want them to know she was this fun-loving person who would go on the Internet and willingly stuff marshmallows in her face just because I asked her to and would hang out with her friends whenever they asked her to and who would express herself by drawing,” Caitlin said. “I just don’t want them to think that she was just defined by this illness that she had.”

If you or someone you know needs to talk to someone, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK [8255]) to find resources in your area. The organization also has an online feature called “You Matter” that has a blog and online resources specifically for young adults who may be struggling with depression or other issues. There are also ways to report online users who may be posting suicidal or self-harming messages.

If someone is having suicidal thoughts, talking with them and asking non-judgmental, non-confrontational questions could also be of assistance, according to the Suicide Awareness Voices of Education website. If someone is in immediate danger, call 911.