Suicide by drowning uncommon but does happen, investigators say

Miranda Whitten didn’t just attend classes at Auburn University, she was also very involved on campus and in the community. One of her relationships was even featured in the campus newspaper.

Her online courtship of a classmate in 2017 went viral and led to her revealing publicly in The Auburn Plainsman newspaper that she is bisexual.

“Auburn doesn't rank very high when it comes to LBGTQ acceptance, but it seems like we have a lot of support out here," Whitten said.

This week, Whitten again made headlines, only this time the news was much sadder. Whitten was reported missing after a camping trip and on Monday her body was pulled from West Point Lake. Investigators believe the 24-year-old drowned herself.

Credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Suicides aren’t usually reported by the media to protect families’ privacy. But in Whitten’s case, the search to find her was very public. Dozens of people joined a search to find the Valley, Ala., native after her empty kayak was found Friday.

Whitten’s death is believed to be at least the fourth suicide by drowning in North Georgia this year, and there could be others that haven’t been publicized.

Drowning is not the most common suicide method, but it happens more often than many realize because suicides don’t often get media coverage, according to local medical examiners and coroners.

“With us having Lake Allatoona, we have quite few a year,” Joel Guyton, Bartow County coroner, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I’ve had them tie cinder blocks onto themselves. I’ve had them tie car batteries to themselves.”

Others have jumped off an I-75 overpass into the water or purposely combined an excessive amount of pills or alcohol and gotten into the water, Guyton said.

The most recent suicide by drowning case in Lake Allatoona  happened earlier this month, Guyton said. A man in his early 20s, whose name was not released, sent text messages to his family members to tell them he planned to kill himself. His body was later pulled from the water.

According to the CDC, more than 44,000 people commit suicide each year in the U.S., with firearms and suffocation as the leading causes. Just over 1 percent of suicides are attributed to drowning, and in 2015, 509 people killed themselves this way, CDC numbers show.

In Georgia, suicides take many more lives than homicides each year. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. and one of three leading causes that are on the rise.

When Whitten was reported missing, her mother told media outlets her daughter had been depressed, but she didn’t think she had drowned.

"She's lived on the water all her life," Tabatha Whitten told Newsweek.

Miranda Whitten, who went by the nickname “Randy,” left behind her cellphone and an extension cord was missing from her campsite. When investigators found her body, the extension cord was found tied to her ankles and a large rock, the Troup County Sheriff’s Office said.

“This tragedy is being treated as a suicide,” Sgt. Stewart Smith said in an emailed statement.

The Auburn newspaper again reported on Whitten, though this time it was her death instead of an on-campus, face-to-face meeting with a love interest.

In February 2017, Whitten was featured in the campus newspaper after meeting a classmate in person after the two first connected on social media. It was an internet connection that went viral on the campus, and it started months before with two students using Snapchat to find dates. But for Whitten, it was about expressing her sexual orientation.

"I can love a girl one day and love a guy another," Whitten said.

In another highly publicized case, a missing epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was found weeks after his disappearance. Timothy Cunningham’s death was also ruled a suicide by drowning.

Cunningham, 35, disappeared in February and in April, his body was found in the Chattahoochee River. Investigators said there was no signs of foul play, but on social media many voiced their skepticism about the death being a suicide.

Dr. Jan Gorniak, Fulton County’s chief medical examiner, said there was thorough investigation in Cunningham’s death in order to determine it was a suicide.

“We do our due diligence,” Gorniak said in May. “If we didn’t know, we wouldn’t call it that way.”

And while suicides by drowning are uncommon, “Just because you don’t hear about it doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen,” Gorniak said.

IF YOU OR SOMEONE YOU KNOW NEEDS HELP

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

Crisis Text Line: 741741

Georgia Crisis and Access Line: 1-800-715-4225