Newsweek: Teen Suicide Is Contagious, and the Problem May Be Worse Than We Thought

Posted 10/24/2016

Newsweek, Max Kutner

Lucrecia Sjoerdsma knew what to watch for: the lingering moodiness, the sudden disinterest in what once brought joy. But her daughter, Riley Winters, a ninth-grader at Discovery Canyon Campus High School in Colorado Springs, Colorado, was always smiling—the 15-year-old used whitening strips because she loved showing off her perfect teeth. “Her smile really matched her personality,” Sjoerdsma says. A petite girl with brown hair that went just past her shoulders, Riley seemed to be a happy, goofy kid and a kind young woman who could sense when others were down and find a way to cheer them up. Riley liked hiking and rock climbing. She spoke of joining the military or becoming an archaeologist, a physical therapist or a dental hygienist. She had plenty of time to decide.

Even though her mother had no sense that Riley was having problems, she knew it was important to talk to her daughter about suicide, and so she did. Between 2013 and 2015, 29 kids in their county had killed themselves, many from just a handful of schools, including Riley’s. There had been gunshot deaths, hangings and drug overdoses. And then there were those choking deaths the victims’ parents insisted were accidental.

Riley knew of at least two of the kids who had killed themselves the previous winter: an older girl at school (they had mutual friends) and a boy in her Christian youth group. Such peripheral connections are all that seem to connect most of the kids in the area who had killed themselves, and school and county officials began to worry they were witnessing a copycat effect...until copycat became too weak a word. It was more like an outbreak, a plague spreading through school hallways.

About a year after Sjoerdsma and her daughter last spoke about suicide, Riley was staying at her father’s house one night when she downed a small bottle of whiskey, then sent out a series of troubling texts and Snapchat messages. “I’m sorry it had to be me,” she wrote to one friend. Then she slipped on a blue Patagonia fleece and snuck out the basement window, carrying her father’s gun.

When Riley’s mother and friends saw the messages, they went looking for her at local parks, gas stations and friends’ houses, all the while begging her via texts and calls to come home.

The next morning, they found her body in the woods behind her father’s house. She’d shot herself in the head.

Three days later, and two days before Riley’s memorial service, another Discovery Canyon Campus student killed himself. Her daughter probably knew the boy, but they weren’t close, Riley’s mother says. Nine days later, yet another classmate committed suicide. He had been on the swim team with the boy who’d just killed himself. And that wasn’t the end of it: Five students from the school of 1,180 died by suicide between late 2015 and summer 2016, a rate almost 49 times the yearly national average for kids their age.

It’s not just at that one school. As of mid-October, the total for teen suicides this year in El Paso County, home to Colorado Springs, is 13, one short of the total for all of 2015. Neighboring Douglas County had a similar crisis a few years ago, and news of a classmate’s suicide no longer fazes students in the area, kids say. “It’s become almost commonplace,” says Gracie Packard, a high school junior in Riley’s district. “Because it doesn’t happen once every four years. It happens four times in a month, sometimes.”

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