A version of this story originally moved in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in June. In advance of a youth suicide awareness and prevention summit in Gwinnett County Friday night, The AJC has updated this story.
On a late Wednesday afternoon in May, a 9-year-old boy stepped off his Barrow County school bus, walked into his house, took a gun from the closet and shot himself in the head.
The third grader in the small community of Winder, nestled between Atlanta and Athens, was the 16th child in Georgia to kill himself since the beginning of February.
In all, 38 kids and teens have taken their own lives so far this year in Georgia.
Just in the Atlanta area, about 1,500 children and teens attempted suicide last year, the GBI said it learned from a query of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. That number, the GBI said, does not include all Georgia children who attempted suicide because other hospitals also see those cases.
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It’s an alarming trend that suggests Georgia could be on track to see one of its worst years yet when it comes to young people ending their own lives.
And there appears to be no easily identifiable reason for the sharp increase, experts and law enforcement say.
“It’s hard to wrap your mind around the fact that a 9-year-old would take his life,” Barrow County Sheriff Jed Smith said. “What can be that bad for a 9-year-old? It’s insanity.”
On that same day, two 16-year-olds — one in Paulding County and one in Lowndes County — also put guns to their heads and fired.
One of the more recent deaths came on July 30 in the Blue Ridge area. A 17-year-old boy shot himself in the head in front of other teens at a party.
“Nobody wants to think this will happen,” said Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent Trebor Randle, who oversees the agency’s child fatality review unit. “We have kids as young as 8 years old taking their lives.”
‘This is not new’
The last time Georgia saw such high numbers of youth suicides was 2015 when 51 young people took their own lives. Typically, the number is closer to around 35.
What’s causing the troubling increase this year is a mystery.
There are no clusters, no identifiable patterns.
Some of the children were from stable, loving, involved families. Some lived in troubled homes. They came from affluent and poor families, lived in metro Atlanta and in rural Georgia.
In some recent cases, there were warnings — prior attempts or talk of suicide. Yet in others, there was nothing to indicate trouble.
“We don’t know what’s happening,” said GBI Director Vernon Keenan. “It’s all over the place.”
Nationwide, rates of youth suicide have risen 13 percent in the past 15 years.
It’s the second leading cause of death for 10- to 19-year-olds, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows. In Georgia, it’s also the second leading cause of death for 15- to 17-year-olds, behind motor vehicle accidents.
“I’m getting more teenagers,” said Catoosa County Coroner Venita Hullander. “I don’t understand how they can get into such a depressed state... For a while people thought it was a fad. This is too serious to be a fad.”
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Parents, mental health advocates and others have raised concerns over an increasing number of suicides or attempted suicides being live streamed on Facebook Live or other apps.
Advocates and school leaders have also warned families about a recently released Netflix series, “13 Reasons Why,” about a high school girl who takes her own life and leaves messages behind for her classmates. The show, they argue, romanticizes teen suicide.
Suicide “contagion,” where people are influenced by being exposed to suicide or suicidal behavior, is indeed a known risk factor, according to the CDC.
But law enforcement and other experts don’t believe the Netflix series, which began airing in March, can be blamed for the increase of youth suicides in Georgia.
“Children were already thinking about it,” said the GBI’s Randle. “This is not new.”
Still, social media plays a critical role in young people’s exposure to bullying and other behaviors that could affect their mental health.
Facebook, Instagram and other social media provide kids with instant feedback about whether peers like them or not, experts say. They feel pressure to be the best at everything — the most popular, the prettiest, the most athletic.
There’s also better reporting and tracking of suicides than in years past, which could account for some of the increasing numbers, said Nadine Kaslow, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Emory University School of Medicine.
On-line bullying and the availability of guns also have had a role, Kaslow said.
“I don’t think anybody knows exactly what’s going on and why,” said Kaslow, who is also the chief psychologist at Grady Memorial Hospital and on the American Psychological Association’s Board of Trustees. “They just feel lost. I think kids are feeling overwhelmed.”
There were warnings
Many juvenile suicides receive little, if any, media coverage.
Yet the internet has made suicide more visible than ever — at least in some cases.
People were angry that the video of her hanging death was posted on Facebook and YouTube for two weeks before those companies took it down.
In her case, there were warnings.
The girl had used the alias ITZ Daisy in the heart-breaking video diary she posted on YouTube. On some videos, she appeared happy, singing and rapping. In others, her mood was dark as she talked of her despair.
As she was setting up to make one video, she got into an argument with her mother. Her phone was recording. The mother called her daughter names and criticized her. The girl complained about her mother not having a job and her dating habits. The girl argued that she should not have to watch her younger brother and sister as much as she did.
The girl also had been hospitalized after she overdosed. In a subsequent video, she talked about her father’s failure to visit her in the hospital even though he lived nearby.
“I have no reason to live,” said the 12-year-old. “No one cares. No one wants me. I have to lie about how I feel most of the time and that sucks. I don’t know if I can do it anymore. My heart is completely broken. … Y’all would love it if I was dead.”
On the day of her death, the girl pressed record and then pointed her cell phone in the direction of a tree just a few yards from her family’s mobile home. After she looped a rope around the branch of the tree, the girl tearfully apologized to her mother, her siblings, her friends and to God for being “ugly” and a “failure.”
Then she looped the rope around her neck and kicked away the stool under her feet.
The recent string of suicides has alarmed the GBI and other law enforcement.
“Nobody wants to talk about this stuff. They don’t want to upset the family,” said Keenan, the GBI director. “I don’t think the media wants to talk about it. How do you have a public discussion if no one talks about it?”
The state agency is trying to get that conversation started.
It is already talking with educators. And it is planning a symposium, along with the Governor’s Office and various state agencies, to come up with more targeted approaches that will enlist the help of families as well as the friends of the youths at risk of suicide.
And it recently posted on its Facebook page about a national plan for various state agencies to develop strategies for addressing the growing problem.
Those efforts include developing crisis services, reducing access to guns and other lethal means for people at risk of suicide, training to help identify and support kids who may be suicidal, and creating partnerships with health care providers and other community services.
People seem to be listening.
The GBI Facebook post has more than 116,000 hits so far. The agency typically only sees 3,000 to 4,000 clicks on its posts.
Keenan said he also plans to look at college-aged kids from 18- to 21-years-old.
“I don’t have the answers yet,” he said. “But I will.”
‘Mom, I love you’
Before the 9-year-old Barrow County boy stepped off the school bus that afternoon in May, he told a classmate he planned to kill himself when he got home.
The classmate told her father, who immediately called the school. Within 10 minutes of the boy telling his friend of his plans, the third-grader grabbed a gun from a closet in his house and shot himself in the right side of his head.
Deputies worked feverishly to save the boy’s life in the kitchen of the Winder home until an ambulance arrived. A helicopter met the ambulance at the local high school and the child was flown to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston where he died.
“Why would a 9-year-old even know what suicide is or how that works?” said Smith, the sheriff. “Where would this come from? Why would this child do this?”
He wasn’t bullied, Smith said. The history on his iPad did not include any visits to websites or articles about suicide. His family was involved in his school and in his life.
“I don’t know that we’ll ever know (the reason),” Smith said.
On the same day, two other teens killed themselves.
One of them was a 16-year-old Lowndes County boy who shot himself in the bathroom in the trailer where his family lived.
No one heard the shot.
Lowndes County Sheriff Ashley Paulk said the boy had had a “falling out with a girl,” but drugs and depression also may have contributed.
“The most prevalent thing driving suicide is the use of drugs and the depression that comes with it,” the sheriff said.
The teenager had texted his mother moments before taking his life: “I love you.”
She saw the message only after she found her son in the bathroom.
Randle with the GBI said: “For a kid that doesn’t normally say ‘Mom, I love you,’ that would be a warning sign.”
There will be a summit Friday, Nov. 17 from 7-9 p.m. to discuss the rise in youth suicides. It will be facilitated by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. Location: Gwinnett County Justice and Administration Center Auditorium; 75 Langley Drive; Lawrenceville, GA 30046