I found some troubling news in the Washington Post not long ago. Several teenagers have taken their own lives and posted their suicide notes on social media sites, prompting fears about an onslaught of copycat suicides.
It started three days after Christmas when 17-year-old transgender girl Leelah Alcorn was hit by a tractor-trailer as she walked along an Ohio highway. Alcorn left a suicide note on Tumblr, explaining the depression and frustration she faced trying to get adults and others to stop referring to her as Joshua and start accepting her as Leelah.
“The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren’t treated the way I was, they’re treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights,” Alcorn wrote, adding, “My death needs to be counted in the number of transgender people who commit suicide this year. I want someone to look at that number and say, ‘That’s (expletive) up,’ and fix it. Fix society. Please.”
In mid-February, a 15-year-old transgender boy from Georgia, Zander Mahaffey, took his life, leaving a suicide note on Tumblr where he discussed the emotional bullying and sexual assault he endured. A few days later, Damien Shrum, a transgender 13-year-old boy, read Mahaffey’s note and left a similar one on several social networks. (Thankfully, a reader tipped off police and his parents in time.)
And late last month, Ash Haffner, a 16-year-old transgender boy from Charlotte, walked into traffic near his family’s home. While Haffner didn’t post his note on Tumblr, he did leave it on his iPad. “Please be WHO YOU ARE,” he wrote. “Do it for yourself. Do it for your happiness. That’s what matters in your life.”
With their notes going viral, Alcorn and Mahaffey are regarded by some as martyrs. From tribute hashtags on Twitter (“#translivesmatter”) to posted artwork celebrating them, the two are getting the love and appreciation they, unfortunately, felt they didn’t receive when they were alive. This has prompted concern from organizations such as the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention about copycat behavior.
While the suicides of these transgender teens have been the most widely reported cases of late, teen suicide is not just a transgender issue. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the suicide rate among females between the ages of 10 and 24, is on the rise in the U.S. The suicide rate among that group hit 4.5 deaths per 100,000 in 2012, according to the latest CDC data, up from 3 per 100,000 in 1994.
Kerri Gardner, 41, an author and blogger who lives in North Raleigh, knows about this all too well.
“I was in a complete, dark hole,” she says of her life between the ages of 6 and 13. “I was very depressed. I’d cry all the time. I didn’t understand homework. I didn’t understand anything. Everything was confusing and hard for me.”
Her problems started early. At age 2, she was kicked in the head by a pony, and later started having seizures that required her to take medicine that left her depressed. Having bickering, divorced parents who each remarried made her feel unwanted, which didn’t help.
With all the stress and pain she was going through, Gardner felt she had enough. When she was 13, while her mom and stepdad were at bingo, she attempted suicide.
“I planned it for months,” she remembers. “I was giving things away out of my room. I didn’t need them – I wasn’t going to be here anymore.” If not for a concerned neighborhood friend, she probably wouldn’t be alive today.
“She was worried about me,” she recalls. “She said, ‘I don’t think something’s right. I’m gonna come over.’ And I was so angry at her because here I am. I planned for months and months and months to take my life, and I didn’t plan for her to call.”
Gardner says things didn’t get better after her suicide attempt. She hasn’t spoken to her dad in 13 years, and she and her mom recently had a falling out. However, thanks to the love and support of her husband and three children, she’s glad that day so long ago was not her last.
And now that she’s writing a book about her experiences, Gardner wants to tell all teens who are going through a hard time that commiting suicide (and leaving some last words on social media) is not the answer to your problems.
“The whole purpose of my book is just to teach the kids you don’t have to do that,” she says. “You can find happiness. You can rebuild your life. You can choose other choices, and you can do it healthy. You can find you some kind of wonderful.”
Where to learn more
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has information about suicide warning signs and risk factors. Visit afsp.org.