Some of the victims are in elementary school.
An increasing number are young girls.
All have chosen to end their lives as a youth suicide epidemic, fueled by adolescent angst and social media, grips communities nationwide.
In central Pennsylvania, York County is seeing a spike.
Last year, there were 11 suicides by individuals younger than 25, an average of nearly one a month. Of those, 10 were children between the ages of 13 and 17.
“Last year was horrible. It was a very deadly year for us,” said Cindy Richard, a York County suicide prevention expert who provided the statistics. “The number last year was the highest in history in York County and we’re looking at why.”
For now, there are only theories and the occasional posthumous explanations that help form them.
When Billy Sechrist found his 15-year-old daughter Shania hanging in their home in May 2016, he also found the note she had left behind. In it, the freshman at William Penn High School in York said that while she loved her family, she couldn’t bear the pain of being bullied any more, YorkDispatch.com reported.
“I tried telling you something bad would happen, but no one listened,” the father said, reading from the note.
“A person can only take so much,” he added.
Richard said stories like Shania’s are unnervingly common these days, especially in counties like York and states like Pennsylvania, where suicide remains one of the leading causes of death for young adults and adolescents.
Pennsylvania saw an average of 74 youth suicides each year between 1990 and 2014, according to the most recent data available from the state Department of Health.
Within those numbers are suicides involving children between the ages of 5 and 9. One, a 9-year-old boy in Carlisle, was found hanged to death in his bedroom in 2013, according to Cumberland County’s Coroner. The coroner declined to provide the boy’s name because of his age.
More recently, in January, 8-year-old Gabriel Taye of Cincinnati, Ohio, took his own life just days after he was bullied and assaulted at school. The September death of 9-year-old Jackson Grubb in West Virginia followed a similar pattern.
“Please stop bullying,” one of Grubb’s sisters wrote on Facebook hours after his death. “I just lost my brother jackson … he hung himself … keep me in ur prayers … thanks for all the support too.”
In Pennsylvania, advocates and families are both daunted and fearful as they struggle to understand the unique pressures facing children in modern day America and to grasp the intricacies and pitfalls of an adolescent experience often far different from their own.
“When I was in school, you could go home or go to school to get away from wherever the stress was,” Richard explained. “But today, kids can never get away from social media and the bullying on social media…”
For preventionists like Richard, it is a race to reach those children before the pressure does. When they do, the outcomes are reaffirming. When they can’t, countless lives are changed forever.
’13 Reasons Why’
Beyond York County, a national suicide rate that declined for decades is now steadily reversing, with the largest increases seen among girls between the ages of 10 and 14. The rate for that particular demographic tripled over the past 15 years from 0.5 to 1.7 per 100,000 people, NPR reported.
Not included in those figures are the many unsuccessful suicide attempts undertaken by young females nationwide each year.
“The deaths are but the tip of the iceberg,” said Sally Curtin, a statistician with the National Center for Health Statistics.
Against this backdrop, a new and massively-popular Netflix series is being both praised for its highlighting of the youth suicide epidemic and criticized for its handling of the subject matter.
The series, “13 Reasons Why,” an adaptation of Jay Asher’s young-adult novel of the same name, is a fictional account of a young female student’s suicide and the fallout that ensues. The plot centers on audiotapes left behind by the victim in which she details the roles others played in her decision to ultimately end her life.
Mental health advocates and others have criticized the show for promoting teen suicide and for its portrayal of unresponsive mental health professionals.
School districts in Pennsylvania and other states, meanwhile, have warned parents about letting their children watch the show, citing graphic content and concern for potential copycats.
“It really concerns me that many of my high school students are telling me that their middle school-aged siblings are watching it,” said Francesca Pileggi, a high school counselor and executive director with Aevidum.
Aevidum, a suicide prevention group, was formed in 2003 following the self-inflicted death of a sophomore student at Cocalico High School in Lancaster County. The group’s program has since been adopted at elementary, middle and high schools across Pennsylvania and is present in at least four other states.
“It is worrisome to think of middle school students trying to process that content and I feel like Hannah’s suicide could easily be interpreted as a solution to the difficult things Hannah (the show’s protagonist) is facing,” Pileggi said of the Netflix series.
In York County, Richard had a slightly different take on the show, saying she believes it helps reveal lesser-known truths about the suicide crisis currently confronting communities like hers.
“I think it shows how (suicide) affects families and how it affects a school district and how mental health can fall between the cracks in schools or any type of big place like that — a hospital, prison or whatever,” Richard said.
Regardless of these differing schools of thought, counties in Pennsylvania and across the nation are watching closely to make sure the fears around “13 Reasons Why” aren’t realized.
In Lebanon County, Kevin Schrumm, an administrator with the local Mental Health/Intellectual Disabilities/Early Intervention Program, said there is a “very active” suicide prevention task force that meets there monthly with a number of ongoing outreach initiatives. They include print campaigns and television commercials addressing suicide and directing those who need it to find help.
“I always say one suicide is too many, and I’m particularly disturbed when a young person dies by suicide,” Schrumm said.
“Lebanon County has been very fortunate in that we have historically had very few teen suicides, and I think that’s at least partially a result of our school personnel and our task force and our community,” he said.
According to Schrumm, Lebanon County has no teen suicides so far this year. There were two in 2016, when the victims were identified as a pair of 18-year-old males. Two were also reported in 2013, each involving a 17-year-old male. And in 2012, there was one suicide, that of a 19-year-old male.
In fact, despite the relative increase in suicide rates among young females, males — and white males in particular — continue to carry one of the greatest risks.
“It’s always going to be white men and guns,” Richard said. “Nothing usually changes with that.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, white males are victims in roughly 63 percent of teen suicides, and suicides have become the second-leading cause of death among teenagers in the United States, behind accidents and ahead of homicides.
Suicide rates are also higher in rural areas due to social isolation, economic hardship, limited access to mental health and emergency health care services, and the prevalence of firearms, according to the CDC.
The Youth Suicide Prevention Program reports that Native American youth have the highest rate of suicide among ethnic groups, while the World Health Organization lists gay youth as two-to-three times more likely to attempt suicide than other young people.
As for firearms, the CDC says they’re present in nearly half of all suicides committed by male victims.
In Pennsylvania, of the roughly 1,850 total youth suicides between 1990 and 2014, almost one-half involved firearms, according to health department data.
“But we don’t go out there talking about gun control,” Richard said of advocates and preventionists. “We live in York County, which is a huge hunting county, and in my personal opinion it’s not guns that kill people, it’s people that kill people.”
Richard said focusing on gun control to prevent suicides would do little to address the underlying causes of such behavior. But she often urges family members or gun dealers to think twice if they suspect a person they know, or a customer, is considering it.
“We had one guy who said what he was going to do with the gun, and the gun shop owner didn’t think anything of it and thought he was kidding,” she said. “But that’s exactly how he did it.”
‘It never ends’
Meanwhile, Pileggi, the high school counselor and executive director of Aevidum, said there are no simple answers with a problem as vast and complex as this.
Pileggi said she was 17 when her own cousin committed suicide, an event that helped push her into her current line of work.
“It isn’t possible to attribute a single circumstance to youth suicide,” she said.
“Risk factors that we do know include having a mental illness, triggering life events (death of a friend or family member — especially if by suicide), a breakup, academic struggles, discipline trouble — like a school suspension, bullying, health problems, history of abuse, and low self esteem. … In regards to social media, cyberbullying has been linked as a contributing factor in many suicides,” Pileggi said.
In response, state legislatures in Texas and Pennsylvania have pursued or adopted anti-cyberbullying laws in recent years as lawmakers look to crack down on virtual forms of harassment as well.
And while it’s unclear what impact bills and laws like these might actually have on teens and youth suicide rates, there is a clear sense among advocates and grieving families like Shania’s that something must be done.
“I think what we’ve really been noticing here in York County is the stress level our kids are under,” Richard said, adding that she’s aware of children as young as 8 who are beginning to self-harm.
“Today, kids can never get away from social media and the bullying on social media and the problems and stress they’re having between home and school, it never ends,” she said.
Richard then offered advice for anyone who may know a struggling child: “When dealing with kids, you need to spend a little more time with them … you have to build that trust and do a little more listening than talking.”