Sandy Metzmeier explains that her son didn’t want to die but said he felt alone and took an impulsive and ‘drastic measure’ during a low point.
Sam Upshaw Jr., Louisville Courier Journal
LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Alechia Click bought a helium tank the day after her son died.
She had so many questions, so many things she had to say. But the person she needed to talk to was gone.
So she wrote her thoughts on pieces of paper, tied them to balloons and released them into the sky.
Why this night?
Why this parking lot?
Did you feel alone?
She knows she will never get the answers she so fiercely needs.
Her son, Ronnie, was 17 when he killed himself in October. Nothing will ever make that OK, nor satisfactorily explain why.
In Kentucky, suicides of young people like Ronnie – those 18 and younger – have climbed in the past five years, with state data showing the number of youth suicides nearly doubling from 18 in 2014 to 34 in 2015. Those numbers have remained high, according to state data.
In recent months, school officials, emergency room doctors and others say they’ve been alarmed at the number of obituaries where suicide is the cause of death for children and teens across the Bluegrass State, particularly those of younger children who hadn’t made it to high school.
With Jefferson County alone already seeing four youth suicides in the first three months of 2019, experts and families say more research, attention and resources are needed.
“If children were dying of the flu like this, it would be in the paper every day,” said Sara Oliver of Louisville, who lost her 16-year-old daughter to suicide in 2017.
Doctors say youth and teens don’t have enough access to behavioral health services.
Advocates say there’s not enough money going to intervention programs such as suicide hotlines, where desperate people must sometimes be put in a queue until they can talk to a counselor.
And researchers say they need more grants to better research how influences such as social media and bullying play a role in why some children kill themselves and others do not.
“There’s a local and national emergency about this that is so vital to get out to people,” said Dr. Amy Hanson, a pediatric ER doctor at Norton Children’s Hospital and a University of Louisville physician.
“This cannot wait.”
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Youth suicides’ disturbing trend
The Fayette County coroner raised red flags in January after his office investigated five suicides by children 14 and younger in the past year.
Days later, the state’s largest school district, Jefferson County Public Schools, said it had already counted eight suicide deaths of students or recent students halfway through the 2018-19 school year. That’s compared with three it counted the entire year before.
Since 2015, Kentucky’s suicides among children and teens aged 18 and under have surged – surpassing the national rate for that age group. It remains higher today, though preliminary numbers from the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services show a slight decrease for 2018.
According to state records:
- In 2014, 18 Kentucky children and teens killed themselves.
- In 2015, that number nearly doubled to 34.
- In 2016, 36 killed themselves.
- In 2017, there were 36 more. At least 10 were not yet old enough to drive.
- And in 2018, preliminary records show 31 children and teens in Kentucky took their own lives.
That same year, more Kentucky children and teens died of suicide than by homicide. Some of that increase may be attributed to better reporting.
Patti Clark, who oversees substance abuse and suicide prevention programs for the cabinet, said the state has worked to educate coroners about properly labeling a suicide. Given the stigma, some coroners in the past would opt against ruling a death as a suicide.
But Clark said better reporting doesn’t entirely explain the rising suicide numbers among young people. She’s particularly concerned, she said, in an increase in suicidal thoughts and actions by younger children.
Kentucky is not alone in this.
In the past decade, the U.S. suicide rate for children and teens 18 and younger has grown by more than 90 percent – with 2017 suicide deaths in this age group hitting the highest count since data collection began in 1999, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In Jefferson County, Coroner Barbara Weakley-Jones said her office saw nine youth suicides last year. In only the first quarter of this year, she’s already had four come across her desk.
She said she’s seen the number of youth suicides fluctuate in previous decades but has been surprised recently at how young some of the children have been who took their own lives.
“You didn’t use to see a 6- or 9-year-old commit suicide,” Weakley-Jones said.
Hanson, the pediatric emergency medicine physician at Norton Children’s Hospital, also expressed alarm after she saw three suicides of children within six weeks this year.
“It seems really disturbing and concerning,” she said.
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A sudden, fatal decision
In January, a 10-year-old fifth-grader named Seven Bridges was one of those children who came through Norton’s ER doors.
Seven’s suicide not only shook the local community but reverberated across the country, in part because of his young age and because of his mother’s allegation that school bullying was to blame.
While suicide in elementary- and middle-school-aged children remains relatively rare, national data shows it is seeing a disconcerting rise. The rate of U.S. children younger than 15 who died of suicide in 2017 was more than double that of those who killed themselves in 2009.
Tami Charles of Louisville, mother of 10-year-old Seven Bridges, wants her son’s suicide to put a spotlight on bullying
Michael Clevenger, Louisville Courier Journal
“We’re starting to see kids making statements of, ‘I want to kill myself,’ as young as 5 or 6 years old,” said Marty Purdy, director of child crisis services for Centerstone, a mental health and addiction treatment center.
“It’s not just gestures. It’s not a child who took five or six ibuprofen.”
Youth are a particularly vulnerable group when it comes to suicide because children and teens already tend to act more impulsively and are more inclined to risky behavior than adults.
Dr. Hatim Omar, a pediatrics professor at the University of Kentucky and founder of a campaign to stop youth suicides, said some younger students may make an impulsive decision to try to kill themselves during a moment of crisis, such as after a fight with a parent or trouble with a friend.
“The crisis doesn’t last long,” Omar said. “They have short attention spans.”
But more and more, those quick decisions are becoming deadly.
Sandy Metzmeier was downstairs watching “The Walking Dead” with her husband one Sunday evening in 2017 when her 12-year-old son called out to her from his bedroom.
He was upset and crying about a friend being mean to him. He’d just taken a bottle full of antidepressant pills, he told her.
The Flaherty, Kentucky, mother rushed her son, Marcus Pryor, to the hospital. Doctors treated him and initially told her he’d be fine, she said.
But Marcus started feeling worse and then began to have seizures.
Metzmeier said her son was scared. He told her he didn’t want to die.
“He did something drastic and stupid to get attention and thought Mommy would fix it,” she said.
But early the next morning, Marcus died.
He was one of 10 Kentucky children under the age of 15 to die of suicide that year, according to state data.
At Marcus’ visitation, the sensitive, straight-A seventh-grader whose voice had just begun to change was dressed in a shirt bearing the insignia of his favorite “Harry Potter” house – Ravenclaw.
A wand he’d begged his mother for the year before lay in his coffin, along with a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup and the sixth “Harry Potter” novel, the bookmark still noting the place he’d left off before he died.
Metzmeier wishes she’d seen some sort of sign that could have helped her stop him from taking those pills, but as she looks back, she can think of nothing. She and her Marcus were so close.
March 27 will mark two years since Marcus’ death.
“There’s not a second, day, minute, that I don’t think about him. I wake up in the morning, open my eyes, his picture is on the wall. I go to get my coffee creamer out of the fridge, and he’s all over the refrigerator,” Metzmeier said. “You just move forward. That’s all you can do.”
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The danger of social media
There simply isn’t enough research to really understand why youth suicides, particularly among younger children, are ticking upward, nor the complex reasons why some children and teens try to kill themselves when others don’t.
Researchers say suicides rarely are caused by a single factor. But they have noted that some trends, such as bullying and suicide-related behavior, are closely related and that access to firearms has also been linked to a greater chance of suicide.
Several mental health providers in Kentucky said they’ve seen an increase in teens and children reporting problems with anxiety; some question whether social isolation or the constant connection to social media through smartphones can exacerbate it.
Oliver, who lost her youngest child in 2017, said she thinks her daughter Mary Glenn’s first iPhone was the start of her anxiety.
“It became a constant social tie, which is great until you have a conflict,” Oliver said.
Mary Glenn was on her school’s homecoming court, sang in Ballard High’s Madrigals choir and played lacrosse.
“She also became unable to detach herself from her phone and probably had a warped impression of success compared to … probably people she didn’t even know,” Oliver said, referring to social media.
Oliver said she believes that constant connection to social media may have been part of the reason that Mary Glenn, then 16, killed herself one day after school in November 2017. She said her daughter had attempted suicide before and had been under the care of a psychiatrist and therapist when she died.
“People avoid me because of the way our daughter died,” Oliver said. “They don’t know what to say to us.”
But Oliver said it’s important for people to know that Mary Glenn killed herself, if only to get more people talking about and understanding suicide.
She said Louisville and other cities need more support for students dealing with mental health issues and more research into risk factors and why the number of suicides keeps going up.
The role of mental health in suicides
The CDC and other organizations have noted that suicide is not solely a mental health concern and that many people who kill themselves had no previous known mental health conditions.
“Most kids don’t have a mental health problem; they have a problem” like bullying or losing a friend or lack of parenting, said Omar, the University of Kentucky pediatrics professor.
Still, a rising rate of incidents of mental health issues among teens in the past decade is worrisome. And experts say that, despite efforts, there is still not enough access to mental health and crisis resources in the community.
Stagnant Medicaid reimbursement rates for behavioral health services mean some psychiatrists and others don’t accept it, creating a patchwork of options and availability, depending on insurance.
Insurance issues or backlogs in available slots for outpatient or other services can make it more difficult for parents, schools and others to get help to those at risk, said Bryan Carter, a pediatric psychologist at Norton Children’s and a professor at the University of Louisville.
Centerstone’s suicide crisis hotline has two or three crisis counselors staffed at any time, said director Geneva Robinson.
That’s not always enough, given the high volume of calls. And that can mean some callers have to wait in a queue, she said.
“We have not funded mental health at the level that allows us to meet the need,” Robinson said.
Why mandatory training hasn’t been more effective
Cynthia Sullivan, a counselor at Male High School, was only a few years into her job in 2004 when she experienced her first student suicide.
She and others pushed for the passage of a 2010 state law requiring all middle and high school students to get suicide prevention awareness education.
This school year, when Male mourned another student’s suicide, the district was more prepared, Sullivan said.
“The families were aware to pay attention to their children and … have conversations,” she said.
In 2015, lawmakers required suicide training for social workers, therapists and others as a condition of licensing renewal. And this legislative session, they passed a bill that included mandated suicide prevention training for teachers and staff.
But those bills didn’t include any funding, and how well they are implemented may depend on the agency.
“Those were great efforts, but they were unfunded mandates,” said Julie Cerel, a professor at the University of Kentucky and director of a newly launched Suicide Prevention and Exposure Lab at the school. “People want to do the right thing, but they want to do it as cheaply as possible.”
‘I’ll never find out everything’
Every once in a while, Alechia Click still lugs out her helium tank and fills up more balloons.
She’s gone through more than 100 now.
She and her son had been estranged for a few years before his death; it was hard to go to his funeral, in part, because she knows some people blame her for Ronnie’s death.
Her ex-husband, Ron Click, Ronnie’s father, is dealing with his own hurt, his own questions and what-ifs.
There had been some volatility in the family, and Ronnie was angry about that. But Ron Click had no warning his son might have been considering killing himself.
There was no note, no final heartfelt call. The last interaction father and son had were text messages about how Ronnie had saved his dad some chicken nuggets for dinner.
Ron Click doesn’t know what else he should have done.
“I told him I loved the shit out of him, and I was proud of him,” he said, his voice cracking. “It still didn’t help.”
Alechia Click is dealing with similar hurt and questions.
“I’m still finding out things,” she said. “I’ll never find out everything.”
She said her thoughts and questions have changed over time. Some are angry. Some search for insights. Others are apologies.
Why would you want to put this much hurt on me, on the kids, your sisters, your dad, everybody that loved you?
Why would you do this right before your birthday?
Was there anything I could have done?
Warning signs that may indicate risk of suicide include:
- Talking about wanting to die or interest in killing oneself.
- Looking for a way to kill themselves, like searching online or buying a gun.
- Talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live.
- Talking about feeling trapped or feeling unbearable pain.
- Talking about being a burden to others.
- Increased use of alcohol or drugs.
- Acting anxious or agitated; behaving recklessly.
- Sleeping too little or too much.
- Withdrawing or isolating oneself.
- Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge.
- Extreme mood swings.
If you are having thoughts of suicide, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 800-273-8255.
Follow Allison Ross onTwitter: @allisonSross.
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